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Hi, listeners, welcome to this episode of "Your Story, Your Legacy." I’m Amy Woods Butler, founder and owner of The Story Scribe. I’ve been helping people write their life story and family history since 2010. And I want to help you write yours. Or help you write the life story of a beloved family member, so that future generations can know about the people and the family they come from.
In the last episode, I explained what I do as a professional personal historian, and how I help clients who want a book written but don’t want to tackle the writing themselves. From this point forward on the podcast, the focus is going to be on you doing the writing, and the things that I’ve learned along the way that can help you with that. Because I get it, writing your own life story can be overwhelming. But you can do it! It’s a matter of taking it a step at a time. And I’m going to be giving you suggestions on what those steps can be.
The writing suggestion from last time was to take a look at your first or middle name, and jot down some story or memory related to it. We didn’t want to include the last name, because when you do that, it’s too easy to slip into the territory of genealogy. I love genealogy, I think it can be great fun, but genealogy is about gathering the data—names and places and dates birth, etc—and what we’re doing is gathering the STORIES.
I told you I’d give you an example with my own name. I come from a family of two kids, my older sister and me. My sister was born in 1964, and the family history has it that my mom got to pick her first name, and my dad got to choose the middle name, and then the same for me two years later. My sister is Stephanie Cassandra—Stephanie from my mom, Cassandra from my dad—and I’m Amy Celeste. Mom’s choice, Amy, Dad’s choice, Celeste.
Now, you’re probably thinking, that’s not a real story, or who cares? It’s just a trifle. And we all have them. You’ll see when you start thinking about your life story, and the memories you want to share, these random bits will pop up. I like to think of our memory as a field of vision. And you know how you get floaters in your field of vision? The dots and squiggly lines? I think of these random bits as floaters in our memory’s field of vision. And I’m going to share with you a couple reasons why they can be valuable.
Using random memories as openers
In the case of the names, I might want to use this as an opener to the passage where I talk about my appearance on the scene. [On a side note: Don’t start your life story with “I was born on this date in this place.” It’s boring! You’ll turn off your readers. More importantly, it can lock you into the frame of mind that you have to give a factual chronolgy of your life. Chances are you’re going to tell your story chronolgically, but you don’t want it to be a “this-happened-then-this-happened” kind of story, the way small kids tell their stories or dreams or the plots of long kids’ movies. I’m going to circle back to this at the end of the episode and give you more thoughts about this.]
Using random snippets of memory to trigger bigger memories and insights
The other way these floaters on our memory’s field of vision, these random bits, bitlets of memory or story, can be useful is where things get exciting. Because the random things will often trigger more substantial memories or the impulse to reflect on the meanings of things that happened. For instance, with the names, this random memory might lead me to think about the reasons why my parents chose the names they did. Or the historical context—In the mid-1960s, when my sister and I were both born, women in the US were still staying at the hospital for a week or so after giving birth. That’s some historical context, and I could even build that out more, and talk about how women were put to sleep during the birth, what they used to call “twilight sleep,” or about the cockamamie ideas they had about forumula versus breast-feeding. Or I could speculate beyond the original story, and imagine those few days between giving birth and having to put a name on the birth certificate, and was there tension between my parents about the names? And this was the compromise they came up with? Did they argue, or was it a friendly disagreement, or maybe there was no disagreement at all, and it just seemed like a fair division?
Or this could lead me to talk about my parents’ experiences. For instance, Cassandra would not have been a common name for a middle-class family in the Midwest. If you recall your Greek mythology, Cassandra was the one who could see the future, but her curse was that no one believed her prophecies. That could lead me into talking about the fact that my dad was a wide reader, a very intelligent man with lots of interests. Or talk about the difference in my parents’ education, how my father, despite growing up poor after his dad died young, put himself through college. And how my mom, to her regret, never went to college because she got a great job with a utility company straight out of high school, and that was considered a huge success for a girl in the 1950s, not college.
So you can see that by taking a look at the random bits of memory can lead to other things. It’s almost like branching arteries. They can take you in directions you might not have thought of had you dismissed them as being trivial.
You may remember something similar to this from classical rhetoric. In the five canons of rhetoric, the first is inventio, or invention or discovery. This was used to figure out what the speaker or writer wanted to speak or write.
I told you I’d circle back to my warning against locking yourself into a way of telling your story that’s based on a strict factual chronology. If we want to really dive into our life story, we have to get comfortable with chaos and random memories and things that may or may not lead to the stories we want to tell. And that can be scary. There’s comfort in knowing what you’re going to put down on paper, and what will follow, and what will follow after that. Because the alternative is ending up with a heap of memories, all kinds of stuff that feels unconnected and disjointed.
That’s exactly what you want.
You want to keep a wide-open mind, you want to let your subconscious enter into conversation with your conscious mind and send up all those floaters, because that’s how you’re going to discover the rich, meaningful memories, stuff you may not have even thought about for years, or you’ve thought about, but now you’re thinking about them in a deeper way, or with a different perspective.
The scary part is:
A) Not know how to get them down on paper, and
B) Not knowing what to do with them once they’re down on paper.
Throughout the course of this podcast, we’ll talk about both, but for now, let’s focus on getting your random bits of memory down. Focus on the discovery phase.
Today’s writing suggestion
Start a list of your “floaters,” the memories that seem scant or inconsequential. You may already have a list of the big topic ideas, but this is something different, these are the ideas that won’t necessarily stand on their own, but that may lead you to the bigger stories, or the meaning behind some of your stories. Or they may be simply content that you can use when you’re writing up a story.
Don’t try to use full sentences. If they come out that way, fine, but all you really need is a few words so that when you go back to your list, you’ll know what you were talking about. And if you feel inspired, take one of them and focus on it for today’s writing session.
When you do that, think about these questions:
What associations come to mind? What else does it make you think about, or make you wonder about? What are the questions you have for yourself? Remember, the discovery phase isn’t a mechanical practice, it’s the way we allow ourselves to be guided to the well of our memory. This is a good exercise in keeping your mind nimble and open to all that your memory has to tell you.
If you want a starting place, here's a question that may trigger something for you:
What’s a favorite toy from childhood?
Who gave it to you and what was the occasion? Was it something you played with alone or with others? Who were those others? What did the toy represent for you? (Imagination, security, your parents’ love for you, etc.)
Focus less on the toy itself, and more on the circumstances surrounding it.
Thanks for listening. I hope that this podcast will inspire you to start gathering your stories, or the stories of a family elder before it’s too late. If you’d like to learn more about personal history and how you can save your story or the story of someone you love, visit me at the story scribe .com
Until next time, start saving your story.