As a teenager I loved to read stories of my ancestors who lived in Sweden, Germany, England, making shoes or bobbin lace, farming, and traveling by ship, wagon or handcart to get to their various destinations. I wondered what motivated them to go where they did and make the life choices they made.
I began to think it would be a good idea to write down a few of my life experiences for my posterity, so I began at the beginning. As this was before the days of computers and easily inserting information, I soon realized that I had left out some things and had no good way to insert them into the narration, so I gave it up for a time.
Some years later I was introduced to another method of writing a personal history that worked much better. In a nutshell, I was told not to try to write the whole thing from start to finish, but rather just choose various stories and write them down. The stories could be organized later.
In 1984, I heard of a class about writing personal history to be held at the Pioneer Home in Palmer, Alaska. It was taught by Jessie DeVries. I think it was taught there to encourage some of the residents of the Pioneer Home to write down their stories, but none of them came. Some I recall who attended were Elverda Lincoln, Diane Lucas, Louise Myers, Helena Myers and myself along with three or four others. We only met for about six weeks, but ended with each of us submitting a story about how we came to be in Alaska.
Jessie, Helena, Louise, Nancy, Diane, Elverda
One valuable lesson I learned in that first class was some good ways to come up with story ideas. First we were asked to keep a small notebook or card with us so that whenever we thought of a good story, we could write down the idea. That way we'd never have to spend much time coming up with something when it was time to write. We would just consult our idea book or card, choose a topic and start writing.
Second, we made a timeline of our lives and then added specific events to it. On my time line there are both private and public events. Some things on my timeline include the first man on the moon, Telstar, polio vaccine, a fatal explosion at the Coliseum where I took skating lessons, Pres. Kennedy's assassination, births of siblings and children and getting glasses for the first time. I have written stories about all these topics.
Third, we were encouraged to collect memorabilia related to our lives. I used a large file box containing files labeled Early Childhood, Work, Hobbies, Children and others. As I found pictures or other small items related to my life, I placed them into the correct file. Whenever I was ready to write, I could just take an item out of the file to write about. Using the various pictures and items as part of the story broke up the text and hopefully made it easier to read.
Fourth, we always shared our stories in class. I was amazed how many memories came back to mind when hearing those stories. Whenever an idea came while hearing a story, I would quickly jot down the topic in my idea book.
There were some stories I'd heard about my life, but had no real memories of them. For birth information, I interviewed my mother. I had heard a story about a huge flood in Lawrence, Kansas, the town we lived in when I was around two years old, so I wrote a letter to the newspaper in Lawrence to ask if they had any articles or pictures about such a flood. A few weeks later, I received a large brown envelope, not from the newspaper, but from the county museum. (The newspaper had given them my letter.) It was crammed full of newspaper articles and pictures with plenty of details for me to write a decent story about it.
A few years later a personal history class was taught by Kathy Hunter for a semester at the Mat-Su Community College. To her I am indebted for a list of rules she made for this type of writing since writing personal history sometimes requires some different guidelines than regular writing:
1. Get it down. Spelling and grammar are not as important. You can always edit it later.
2. Use “I” freely.
3. Choose a title for your story that limits the topic and then stick to the topic. Don’t ramble.
4. Be confident. Don’t be intimidated about writing. It’s your story and you can do it the way you want.
5. Be specific. Use precise words. Ex. not: “It was a nice day.” but rather “It was a bright June day.”
6. Don’t skimp on paper. If you are handwriting, double space and leave big margins so you have room for additions and corrections.
7. Write to express, not to impress. Be natural, be yourself, and tell the truth as you see it.
8. Keep your notebook or idea book handy for writing down ideas to draw from when you are ready to write.
9. Don’t preach. Tell your story honestly as you’ve lived it. Let the story tell whatever truth you want to convey.
10. Don’t waste time waiting for inspiration. The only way to write is to write.
11. Reading helps writing. Read autobiographies to see how others have written.
12. How to get unstuck? Pretend you are writing a letter to the person you love most, or the person who understands and loves you the best.
13. Keep it simple. Strive for clarity and simplicity.
14. Avoid overloading sentences. Use one thought per sentence, but vary sentence length and style.
15. Don’t change tenses.
16. Watch paragraphs. When you start a new idea, start a new paragraph.
17. Reread what you’ve written to see if you’ve left anything out. Ask someone else to read it to see if they understand what you are trying to say.
18. Dare to be original.
19. Don’t forget who you are writing for and why.
20. Get people into your story. Describe, introduce, show how they influenced you.
21. Use complete sentences.
22. Content is ore important than grammar, but good grammar makes easier reading.
23. Link your life and times to history of that time…presidents, movie stars, styles, words.
24. Don’t overuse commas.
25. Get your feelings and values into what you write.
26. Don’t write a travelogue. Choose and focus on highlights.
27. Use active rather than passive voice.
28. Use exclamation points sparingly!!!!!
29. Plan on editing and rewriting.
30. Use a thesaurus.
31. Explain terms which may be unfamiliar to the reader.
32. Use picture words. Describe.
33. Read what you have written out loud.
34. Spell out numbers 1-10 and use digits for numbers greater than ten.
35. Use numbers to talk about time.
The members of the two classes had different expectations. Some just wanted some writing experience. Some wanted to share stories with their families and some wanted to actually publish books for profit. Both classes used a similar format with a short discussion period with ideas for writing in the beginning and an opportunity to share the stories we’d written at the end.
At that time, I was involved with the Family History Center in Wasilla, first as a volunteer worker and later as director of the center. One activity sponsored by the FHC was a genealogy seminar every October. The seminar consisted of an opening session and 4 one hour classes with lunch in the middle. During each class period several different topics were offered for people to choose from. Since personal history is very much a part of genealogy, or family history as we called it, we always offered at least one session on it. Almost always, I was the presenter for that class. During one of those classes, we discussed ways to stay motivated to keep writing. As a result of that discussion, some of us decided to meet once or twice a month to share the stories we were writing. We had a large table in the middle of the Family History Center, so we sat around that as we shared our stories.
We had some wonderful story tellers in that group. Maybe some of them were a little too willing to share stories, so we soon implemented a couple of rules that worked well for us:
Anyone may attend class once just for the enjoyment, but after that each person had to bring a story written to share with the group. Anyone who attempted to tell a story was told to stop. They were instead asked to write down the story they wanted to tell and bring it to share with the class another time.
We loved hearing the stories and learning about the lives of our class members. We became quite a close group. The initial group members were mostly from one particular church congregation, but later as that congregation split into two and then into three congregations, the group expanded.
Some folks expressed an interest in being critiqued on what they wrote, but for the most part, people were satisfied with just having a deadline so they would get it done. It eventually evolved from being strictly a writing group into a great time to get to know other folks in the group as well.
One of my favorite stories of the group involved an older couple. They had written their stories, but were intrigued with the way we were doing the stories with more details. They wanted to change their stories from a short recitation of facts to something their children and grandchildren would love to read. The man had a rather rambunctious youth, the type that involved knocking over outhouses with people inside, rolling boulders down a mountain and destroying a building with it, boxing, experiences in the Navy and eventually homesteading in Alaska. His wife was a city girl who had some interesting experiences adjusting to rural Alaska. They worked hard on their stories and eventually were able to get them bound into a book to gift their children for Christmas. It all became worthwhile to them when a grandson, who was going through a difficult time, told his grandfather, “Grandpa, you were pretty bad when you were young, but you turned out to be a good man. Maybe there is hope for me yet.”
We had no idea what we were starting! The group that started meeting around that big table in the Family History Center has moved several times since then. Currently, in 2018, it is still meeting in a common room in one of the apartment buildings at the Wasilla Senior Center complex 34 years later. Members have come and gone but people are still successfully writing about their lives. Here are some members of the current group with some missing because it is winter in Alaska...and they are snowbirds...out having more experiences to write about.
Back, left to right: Jeanene Bucaria, Kathy Greathouse, Elverda Lincoln, Judy Foley, Gretchen O'Barr, Betty Vehrs, Nancy France
Front, left to right: Wendy Wesser, Mary Wargo, Winnie Wargo
There has even been a spin-off group from the Palmer, Alaska area.
A favorite quote of mine says:
Most important to me, personally was that my in-laws wrote their life stories as a legacy for their children and grandchildren. What a great gift!
My own life story is still a work in progress. I currently have three 3-inch binders filled with stories and memorabilia. The pages have had a lot of use over the years as our children have anxiously awaited the stories we wrote, grabbing them as they came out of the printer to be the first to read them, so I have placed each page in an archivally safe plastic sheet protector
When you set a goal to write a new story each week or each month, it seems like the task can't be done perhaps, but after a time, the stories turn into volumes!