Almost anyone who begins a memoir or personal history project of any sort will sooner or later confront the limits of her memory. She will find herself or someone she is interviewing unable to recall the name of a person or the details of an event and that person or event is critical to the story she wants to tell. “I attribute this to what I call the ‘overfilled filing cabinet,’’ says Fred Cicetti author of The Healthy Geezer. “As we get older, we accumulate so many memories that it’s impossible to find the ones we want.” However, memory researchers have found that it may take some doing, but it is very possible to access those elusive memories.
David McCulloch, who has won Pulitzer Prizes for his books on Harry Truman and John Adams, knows how to write a good life story. Says McCulloch, “I believe very strongly that the essence of writing is to know your subject…to get beneath the surface.” As you create your personal or family history book that’s advice you should take to heart. Unfortunately it’s something we often forget when we set out to research our genealogy or create a family history. We turn into Joe Friday, the character played by Jack Webb on the old TV series Dragnet, who was fond of saying, “Just the facts, ma’am.” A plethora of tools beginning with ancestory.com and familysearch.org help us find more and more of those facts. But as we gather the facts we may miss the stories that would make the family history memorable.
Tribute books are written to express appreciation. They may focus on the positive influence of a person on your life, or focus on their accomplishments. In many cases both topics are combined. These books are often created to commemorate a milestone or special occasion like a retirement, a fiftieth anniversary, or a special accomplishment like winning an award. Tributes can celebrate the success of a group, a business, or an organization, rather than an individual. Another type of tribute book is written to preserve the memory of a person who has died, focusing on their special traits and the contributions they made to the lives of others. Tribute books are sometimes created by a group with each member contributing their story.
Not everyone who thinks about or even starts to write a memoir succeeds in completing her book. One of the things that helps many who are successful to achieve publication is having someone to support them in completing the project. One great way to find that kind of support is to organize a group of other people in the process of creating memoirs. Here are some simple tips on how to do it.
You’ve been thinking about creating a memoir or family history book. But you may feel a bit like you’re set off on a bit of an uncharted course. Creating a book seems like an overwhelming task. Looking at creating a book as a six-step process helps give you a roadmap which will make successfully seeing your book through to publication much less daunting.
When you set out to preserve your personal or family history there are a lot of ways to do it. Technology has provided a lot of tools that seem attractive: audio CDs, video on DVD, and numerous internet photo storage sites. But the Library of Congress warns that books remain the best method of preservation. Dag Spicer, curator of the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley advises, “…consider paper the archival medium.” In creating an archival quality book there are a number of things to consider to insure its longevity. Make sure that as you decide on a printer you review the features of the book they will produce for you.
Many first time memoirists and family historians think that their first responsibility is to create a complete record of everything that happened. As a consequence their initial draft often reads like a list. All events great and small get equal treatment. Unfortunately these lists are missing the elements that make stories interesting and compelling: conflict, emotion and drama.
If you have finished writing and revising your memoir or family history book, you may imagine that completing your manuscript means you're done. But authors who self-publish have a a final critical step to take before publication – book design. Book design combines decisions about elements of the book, style, organization, illustrations, layout, and cover design. The choices you make about the design of your book will give it the unique character you wish to create. Here are some of the things to consider when designing your book:
What does that family photo mean? That’s not a question many people ask themselves as they create their family history book. But they should. “Family photographs can be considered cultural artifacts because they document the events that shape families' lives,” said Charles Williams, Online Features editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “…In many cases, photographs are the only biographical material people leave behind after they die.”
Let's say you’re finished, or almost finished, with the manuscript of your memoir or family history. Now you will want some help to edit and complete your draft. How do you choose the editor for your manuscript? Here are five questions that will help you decide:
One of the most famous pieces of advice that professional writers will share is, “Show, don’t tell.” But what does this really mean? Essentially, to describe, and let the story unfold, so that the reader can experience it as you did, firsthand. This dictum is directed at writers, but whether you record your stories or write them, the same techniques apply. In fact, oral storytellers are more likely to tell a story well, naturally.
Recently, I was asked to write an article for a publisher’s newsletter. The topic was “What inspires you each day?” Each day? I’m sorry, but I cannot be inspired every day. However, I can be motivated, even resolved, to work at my long-term goals every day. I am good at New Year’s Resolutions. Those of you who want to write and publish a book need to stick to your resolutions, too. It is good work, but it surely won’t get done in a day.
I think “inspiration” is often misunderstood. In popular culture, inspiration is a rare lightning strike, and creative people seem to discover or “channel” their most brilliant work in those moments of inspiration. Me, I come from the other school of thought, that old 98% perspiration theory. My attitude toward work is a more earthly, manageable and mechanical phenomenon. Every day, I sit down and get to work, whether I feel inspired or not. Despite my pragmatism, my daily work can be very artful and creative.
I have always been an avid reader, and I studied English in school because I wanted to get paid to read and write. I quickly recognized that I was different from the other writers. I don’t imagine I “have a novel in me”, and I don’t have one big idea or vision I feel driven to share with the world. (Although I do have lots of little ones – do they count?) Instead, my joy in reading, and my joy in writing, has to do with deconstruction. People build books, I take them apart. I love analysis, particularly of text and ideas, and that has made me well suited to be an editor.
(Photo courtesy of Larry Johnson, Creative Commons)
Analyzing a book is fun, but even more fun is imagining the better book it might be. It changes the way I read and think about books. It also leads me to help others, to explain these better ways of writing. I get to have wonderful, specific, right down to the paragraph /theme /setting conversations with writers who are still in the process of revision. I love that moment when someone says, “OH! So if I fix that, it will change everything!” And they dash off to rewrite, because their book will be so much better.
I do both editing and book design, and they both have their pleasures and challenges. But if I had to say which is most rewarding, it is that moment of enlightenment that someone gets to experience because of my rather uninspired, developed over a lifetime, not just in a day, editing skills. That’s the way progress is really made – new knowledge springs from the old, established knowledge.
Occasionally, you will have that “Aha!” moment, and you will get to sprint ahead because you’re inspired. That’s a real pleasure. For today, New Year’s Day, I invite you to recognize and give a nod of respect to your inner turtle, that slow-moving-toward-the finish-line part of yourself that gets the big jobs done. And may you get your big jobs done this year. Best wishes for 2012, -Nan
PS - What are you inspired to acheive this year? Let us know!
What’s the best way to get your memoir or family history book into print? That’s a question with many answers, and even more people out there telling you which answer you should choose. Which one will work best for you? Begin by asking yourself three questions: • Who is your intended audience? Are you hoping for commercial success with wide distribution of your book? Or, is your goal to distribute a limited number of copies to family and friends? • How many copies of the book will you need? This will help you decide whether it will be better to use a digital printer or an offset printer. [For a discussion of the different types of printing available read our blog posts Printing Choices in Self Publishing and Print on Demand Lowers the Cost of Family History Books .] • How to plan to pay for the book’s printing or publication? When you’ve made some decisions about these questions you will be better equipped to make a choice on who you want to print or publish your book.
Newspapers have long used sidebars, short stories presenting sidelights to the main news story. Textbook publishers do the same thing. A science text offers a short biographical sketch of the scientist who developed a particular theory to accompany the chapter explaining his ideas. Sidebars are a tool that memoirists and family historians might use as well. Here are some examples of ways you can use sidebars to include interesting stories or bits of information to provide interesting sidelights to your book without interrupting its narrative flow of a memoir or family history.
Christmas is a great time for storytellers. Each of us has a collection of holiday tales that we’ve gathered through the years. We’d like to recommend two stories (and some ways to preserve your own family stories) to you: