Writing a personal history may be easier than you think, thanks to a number of new technologies and services
For some, interest in keeping a life history comes from the counsel of church leaders, but personal historians seem to agree that basic human desires account for the growing interest in their field.
"There's a human instinct to pass things on," said Kitty Axelson-Berry, founder of the Association of Personal Historians. "And I think there's a human instinct to bond with family, to learn from your family. Sometimes people are moving along so fast that they haven't done that, and they're feeling this un-met need."
Amy Oaks Long, a Brigham Young University professor of family history, said she has seen a lot more people interested in writing personal histories lately. She said it's impossible to get specific numbers, but it's easy to notice the proliferation of several technologies that make assembling a personal history a cinch.
Publishing technology has spread from traditional paper and ink to include desktop computer publishing and several forms of Online publishing. Anyone can publish their own blog (short for "Web log") or contribute to a wiki, a site where anyone can write or edit. The new technologies make it quick and easy for anyone to create and publish a personal history.
"It's important for yourself," Long said, "because as you go through that process, it becomes a means of self-evaluation. You learn from your mistakes and you can credit yourself with some victories you may have forgotten. You want to leave some roots for the next generations."
Genealogy is a beginning, Long said, and making a personal history is a way to package it together and add meaning to it. Before getting started, Axelson-Berry advised, be aware that writing a personal history requires a lot of stamina.
"I recommend that people should start out writing their own if they want, but then not hesitate to get assistance," she said.
Both Long and Axelson-Berry agreed that collecting information and stories isn't the hardest part -- it's assembling everything into a concise, readable volume. Long said she recommends 200 pages or less.
"If you write everything you ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner for 30 years, nobody's going to want to read it," Long said. "There's so many things that are just extra, added detail, and you can leave that in your personal files. We do have journals and scrapbooks where we can keep every thought and paper and picture, but a personal history takes the best, most representative things and puts them in there.
"And it might not be only the happy things," Long said, "because we want to get all the ups and downs of your life."
Axelson-Berry said it does require some sensitivity to decide what to include and what to leave out. But one thing that will help speed up the writing process, she said, is to have the correct spelling of family names or places, and to double-check dates and facts about the events you will write about.
"Some people say it was such-and-such a day when the Titanic sunk, and it really wasn't," she said.
But Long said she doesn't worry too much about faulty memories, mostly because a personal history is purposely written from the subject's point of view. She said she's heard several excuses for people not writing a personal history.
"Something I get quite a bit is, 'But there's nothing that interesting about my life,' " Long said. "I say every life has something different and interesting, and you want to be able to leave your legacy for the future.
"Some people think they're not old enough," Long said. "But we don't know how long we're going to be on this earth. It's not something you want to save for when you get a terrible disease and you're thinking it's your time. Write now, and you can always write Volume 2."
Axelson-Berry, who runs a Massachusetts memoir and personal history publishing company, helps people write and publish their histories for a living but hasn't written her own.
"Too much work," she said.
That's why companies like Axelson-Berry's exist. Her company collects information through documents and interviews, writes and edits the memoir, and publishes it. She said depending on the amount of information included, the whole project usually costs $10,000 or more.
New Internet technologies offer a more do-it-yourself option to writing a personal history. Instead of providing professional writing and editing services, the Provo company FamilyLearn helps users create a Web site to collect and then publish their personal information.
At www.imemorybook.com, users create personal books Online, and can add information, stories and pictures to the book themselves or invite family and friends to contribute. When a user decides the book is finished, FamilyLearn offers several templates and publishing options, and will ship the copies of the completed book to the user's door.
"The first benefit is collaboration," said Neal Harmon, co-founder of FamilyLearn. "The second one is that you don't have to worry about preserving electronic copies of your book. Having it on our servers is like saving it to four different computers. Also, you don't have to worry about getting the document just right so it goes to the publisher correctly."
Setting up a personal book Online with iMemoryBook costs $50, which includes $37 toward publishing a hard copy of the book. That's enough for one hardbound book with 25 full-color pages or 150 black-and-white pages. The price per book goes down when ordering more copies.
For those who make it through the process, Long said there is a sense of peace.
"When I've helped others complete their histories, it creates such peace for them," she said. "For old people, their mind might not be able to retain so many thoughts anymore, and they begin to struggle. A personal history helps them remember the things they've accomplished in their life, and helps them have a sense of peace."
Ten Steps to Writing a Personal History
1. Organize and preserve memorabilia into a working archive
2. Involve your family and friends by asking them to contribute
3. Record interviews with family members to collect life stories
4. Meet with the printer or publisher to discuss limitations on what you can include for the price you can pay
5. Use historical events or people to trigger memories
6. Write the first draft of your personal history
7. Add memorabilia such as photos and awards
8. Make your personal history "user friendly" by proofreading, creating chapters, and including a table of contents
9. Edit and finalize your personal history
10. Publish and copyright your personal history
Source: Amy Oaks Long's book, "From Shoeboxes to Books: Writing Great Personal Histories." See www.personalhistoryhelp.com for more detailed instructions.
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page C1.