Writing the Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary People: How to Become a Personal Historian By Stephanie Kadel-Taras

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When I wrote the story of my grandmother’s life, I’d never heard the term “personal historian.” I was just out of graduate school and looking for a project that would be personally meaningful, instead of another professor’s assignment.

So I flew to Florida and taped several hours of interviews with my eighty-three-year-old paternal grandmother. She told me about walking with her father to see a fire, getting caught smoking cigarettes, meeting my grandfather at church camp, and being a college president’s wife when she really just wanted to read romance novels alone at home.

I transcribed the tapes, added stories from newspaper clippings and journals, and wrote her life story into a short book. I carried no delusions of publishing grandeur. This was simply a book for my family. The rewards weren’t monetary, but I was far richer in self-understanding and relationships than I’d been before.

“Every family should do this,” I thought. And then I realized maybe I could get paid to help them. I was searching the web for other people who were offering this service when I stumbled upon the Association of Personal Historians (APH). Its members-who come from careers in journalism, social work, education, and even psychotherapy-were working all over the country to help ordinary people document their life stories. I had found my writing niche.

While members of APH are not all book writers (some are videographers, some are life writing teachers), many of them do what I did with my grandmother-interview a narrator, edit and organize the material into a well-told tale (usually written in first-person to preserve the narrator’s voice), and oversee the production of a book to be shared with family and friends. The author and copyright holder is usually the narrator, and the personal historian is paid a fee for producing a work-for-hire.

Personal historians charge anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $25,000 or more, depending on the length and complexity of the project. While a typical project is a book of the life story of one individual, personal history products can take many forms, from stories of a child’s first years, to romance stories written for an anniversary, to a selection of war remembrances. Although some narrators may seek to publish their work for sale to the public (where the personal historian may get a percentage of royalties), many simply want to document their memories as a family heirloom.

If the idea of becoming a personal historian interests you, begin by capturing the memories and stories of your own family members. Review books about how to do life-story interviewing (see the APH web site for suggestions), and ask one of your elder relatives to sit down with you for a couple of hours. Then use the skills you’ve already developed as a writer to turn the interview transcript into a series of stories. This will give you some specific experience and an example of your work to show prospective clients. Plus, you’ll have done something wonderful for your family.

Then, like any freelance writer or small business owner, you’ll have to promote your services and build a reputation for your work. In this case, your market is individuals and families, instead of magazine editors or publishers, so it requires new thinking about how to reach your customers. But we’re seeing an increasing interest in the U.S. in preserving family stories, and in getting professional help to do the work.

If you’d like to learn more about this growing industry for writers and gain a wealth of expert advice on doing this kind of writing, I recommend the resources of the APH. I have been to two annual conferences and came away each time overwhelmed with advice and information and with the sincerity and generosity of the members. Maybe I’ll see you there next year!

Stephanie Kadel-Taras, Ph.D. is the founder and owner of TimePieces Personal Biographies (www.timepiecesbios.com), located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. TimePieces helps people preserve their memories and honor their stories by creating books about their life experiences. Stephanie has written two biographies of her grandparents, Taking Life as It Comes and A Wild Run. In addition, she writes profiles of area seniors for a local monthly called Independent Times and publishes personality pieces in other local magazines. Stephanie also teaches life story writing workshops to seniors in Michigan and Florida.