Write a Personal History

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Introduction

A personal history is one way of leaving a legacy for descendants to treasure for generations. It is important to retain accuracy of information when creating your personal history. If you leave it to someone else to create it, he or she can only rely on their memories of you and secondhand stories that may not accurately reflect your life.

If you feel overwhelmed about where to begin, go to jrnl.com (Sign up; it’s free!) On the site, there is a section titled “All About Me.” This is a great starting point, because not only does it ask questions to trigger memories, it also allows you to document your answers right there within the form. The questions are categorized to keep details organized.


Why Create a Personal History?

Ask yourself these questions – if your parents, grandparents, and other ancestors did not leave life histories, do you wish they had? Do you wish you could read about their lives? If so, it is likely for your descendants to feel the same way if you don’t. A record of your life can be a great gift to those who come after you. Words in print can be read and reread, pondered over, and returned to. The words your teenager rejects now may become clear and precious when he or she rereads them later in life.

You could have a great effect on those who follow you. Your example, trials, and triumphs can strengthen and motivate others. A famous, biblical example is Job of the Old Testament, who suffered many trials. “Oh that my words were now written! oh that they were printed in a book! That they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock forever!” he mourned (Job 19:23-4 KJV). His words were written, and so his triumph over tragedy and his faith have remained an example of devotion to people of the world for thousands of years.

Writing your history can also provide you with an opportunity to evaluate your life. It may help to clarify your direction in life. Writing about your past, even if it was not idyllic, can help you cope with feelings and create an opportunity to find understanding and forgiveness. See also 2: Writing a Family History” in the FamilySearch Learning Center. Many of the same reasons also apply.


When Should I Create My Personal History?

There is no better time than now. Do not put off writing until you believe you’ll have more time, or until you’ll retire. Our expectations of how much time we have to do all that we need or want to so do not usually match that of what happens. In addition, you never know how long you may live, so do not procrastinate.

No one else can write your personal history the way you can. The story is about your life, and it should be written by you. However, the longer you wait to write it, the more details are likely to slip away and be forgotten.

When writing your story, set realistic and specific goals. For example, you could set a goal to complete a first draft in three months. A final draft could be ready to review within six. By the end of nine months, you could have a finished copy ready for distribution to your family members. The time allotted to write your history is subjective. It may be more reasonable for you to write a chapter a week for the next years or write about one subject per week or even a page per day. Do what you can, but do it regularly and consistency.

Your history isn’t limited to just subjects. It may be easier to write about the different stages of your life like preschool, grade school, high school, etc. Breaking up your history into segments like these makes the task easier to accomplish.


Different Types of Personal Histories

You can preserve your life history and memories in many ways. The following are a few ideas:


Written Biographies

A written biography is a great way to record personal histories for those who enjoy writing. They can include any of the following:

  • Personal account of events in your life. Cyndislist is a good website to help you get started.
  • Photographs of events, family, friends, homes you grew up in, places you’ve traveled, and other experiences of interest in your life. Photographs are good visual aides to supplement your history.
  • Copies of family records, such as your birth and marriage certificates, school records, diplomas, religious certificates, awards, and other records of interest.

What you decide to include is up to you, and any physical documents or images can help round out your words.


Journals

Journals are excellent to preserve your history. Where a personal history tends to be broader in scope and generally covers a greater period of time, a journal can preserve the day-to-day or week-to-week events of your life. A journal provides a more intimates and detailed account of your daily experiences.

They may be easier for someone to write. Although journal writing can span over large amounts of time, it is done in small increments rather than covering a lot of information at once.

Journals have a more personal feeling to them. They often contain insights, expressions or emotion, observations about events and how they affect you and those around you, musings, and much more.

You may also choose to include drawings or photographs within the journal, which can add interesting dimension.

Journals are not only a good way for those after you to see into your personal, but also a medium for you to reflect on during your life to see how you’ve grown.


Narratives

Narratives are another form of personal history. This particular kind of narrative documents memorable events and are usually brief.

Many people find it useful to set aside a time each week to write their narratives. For example, one woman spends an hour writing each Sunday afternoon while her young children take a nap. During each session, she writes two or three short narratives.

These narratives can later be polished and compiled into a longer history.

Appendix A of this lesson gives a list of subjects for personal narratives. You do not need to limit yourself to these topics, though. They may, however, remind you of other events that you would like to write about.


Records of Milestones

Creating a record of milestones is similar to keeping a journal, except it tends to be added to less frequently.

It is a record of important events like birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, death, life-changing experience, and major accomplishments. They also include your feelings regarding the milestones.

Scrapbooking is one method some people use to chronicle their own milestones.


Scrapbooking

This is also a popular form to preserve memories and can be a great alternative or addition to a written personal history. Scrapbooks focus on documenting special events using photographs and other memorabilia.

Scrapbooks tend to not be as comprehensive as written history, but they provide excellent visual documentation.

Scrapbook supplies and classes are often readily available.

Expert Tip: Keeping a journal and a scrapbook together can help you create an excellent, full history of your life. Narratives and journal entries help provide insightful background to each photograph in your scrapbook.


Oral Histories

An oral history preserves the voice of someone. It is a great alternative for those who do not feel that they have the skills or desire to write. Those who struggle with writing may find it easier to sit down and talk about their lives. For many people, having someone record someone from their lives is a fun and deeply touching experience.


Electronic Recordings

With the development of electronic devices, like video equipment and tape recorders, recording history is easier than ever. Using this equipment to record your history, you can include much more than is typically found in a written history.

These can include recordings of your voice, of you singing or playing an instrument, among other visual and auditory images.

A thing to be aware of when deciding to record electronically is that they can deteriorate or become outdated. Computer discs, hardware, and software programs can become outdated over time, and this process is becoming faster, with technology changing vastly over a few short years. After a few years, you may find that you have difficulty finding a computer or program that will read what you have recorded.

You should review the medium your recorded with on a regular basis. Once a year it best. Tapes should be played back annually to prevent the sound from bleeding through the tape.

Before it gets harder to find equipment to play or read what you have recorded, it is a good idea to transfer your history to an updated medium.

Expert Tip: If you plan to record your history electronically, be aware that electronic media does not retain quality for long. Electronic recordings should be transcribed onto archival quality paper. If it is digitized, it will last forever.


Online Photo Books

With the availability of the Internet, it is possible to create a fine quality history book online and have it delivered to your door. You can add at many photographs and as much text as you would like. The company then prints out as many books as you want and ships them to you. These can then be distributed to friends and family members.


Before You Begin Writing

After considering your options, decide what method you would like to use to record your history. Whether you are going to write, video tape, or make a photo- or scrapbook, you should consider doing the following:

  • Gathering everything you can find about your life that might help you remember events.
  • Organizing the items per the type of history you plan to create.
  • Carrying note cards with you to record memories as they come to mind. Often memories will come up at inconvenient times. Note cards provide an easy way to record them, regardless of when they arise.
  • Elaborating on some of your memories as you have the time. Add more details that what you may have written on your note cards.
  • Talking into a tape- or video-recording device to record some preliminary ideas. Memories may also come easier and with more detail if you are speaking them. You may want to transcribe the recording alter or use it as a starting point for writing.
  • Asking relatives and friends to share memories and stories they have of you. These recollections are extremely valuable; others often remember events that happened when you were too young to remember them, or they might remember things that didn’t seem important to you when they happened or memories you may have forgotten.


Potential Subjects for Your History

Listed below are general topics you might consider as you prepare to write. Appendix A provides an additional list of questions to prompt your memory.

Below are some general topics to consider as you prepare to write. Appendix A provides an additional list of questions to prompt your memory.

  • A list of life events in the order they occurred (a chronology)
  • A list of the ten most important things in your life now and details about them
  • A health chronology if there are health issues that might affect your descendants
  • Family traditions
  • Romance
  • Personal convictions and learning experiences
  • Childhood memories
  • Family members – ancestors and descendants
  • Funny or embarrassing experiences
  • Society, geography, and entertainments surround you – anything that gives context to your life
  • Examples of your talents (poems, artwork, songs, etc.)
  • Challenges and how they shaped you
  • Stories of your life experiences
  • Stories or comments about you contributed to by other people
  • Advice you’d like to share with future generations. These words may be the most precious words you leave to your loved ones.
Expert Tip: If you plan to create something to be printed and published formally, check with a few publishers. They will be able to tell you what you need to know to prepare your material for publication. This information could prevent the extra effort of retyping or reformatting your work later.


Start Writing

Do not be too critical of your writing skills. In the beginning, it is more important to get the information, stories, feelings, and events recorded first. Late, you can polish what you’ve written. These suggestions may help you begin your personal history:

  • Begin your narrative at an exciting point in your life. You do not have to begin by listing your date of birth. Get your readers interested first, and then they will enjoy learning the facts later.
  • Do not worry about style, grammar, punctuation, or other composition technicalities at the beginning. Write however feels most comfortable for you.
  • Be visual with your words. Include background information about the location or local history at the time a memory or event took place. Describe clothing, rooms, expressions, and so on that were involved. Try to recapture the emotions of people. Give enough detail about the situation to make things interesting (See an example in the Teacher Suggestions section at the end of this lesson). Do not let your writing become just a list of dates and places with stories and a background to bring them to life.
  • Be willing to laugh at yourself. Let your personality and humor shine through in your writing.
  • Do not be afraid to write about your weaknesses, as well as your strengths. If you feel comfortable writing about mistake you’ve made, elaborate on what you learned from them and what consequences followed.
  • Always be truthful and honest about your life. If something is too uncomfortable to share, just exclude it and move on.
  • Be wary of extremely sensitive issues, especially if other people were involved. It’s important to be careful of libeling or embarrassing others.
  • Remember your story doesn’t have to be told in chronological order. Digress whenever you feel like; these digressions may just be the most interesting parts of your story.


Other Things to Include

In addition to writing about your memories, you may want to include some of the following items of interest. They can be part of the body of the history or can be added as an appendix.

  • Photographs of family, friends, homes, wedding day, yourself at milestone ages, a few vacation highlights, homes you have lived in, schools you attended, and so on
  • Your feelings about social, religious, or personal issues
  • Lessons you have learned
  • Feelings about loved ones
  • Dreams for the future
  • Excerpts from journals
  • Poems you have written
  • Newspaper articles about you or events you took part in
  • Copies of certificates
  • Maps
  • Direction from insightful inspirations


Writing Challenges

If the writing process isn’t going well, ask yourself why. Maybe you’re writing about a subject you feel should be included but doesn’t excite you. Think about whether it is really important or if you can just skip over it, even if just for the moment.

Realize that hard work is often necessary for inspiration. Self-discipline to write when you don’t feel up to it may work, but taking a few days’ break may also. You can spend the time off from writing looking for photographs to include or revisiting a place you plan to talk about. Consider having a tape recorder handy while you’re doing these in case you remember more details. Activities related to your history may be enough to re-motivate you.

Sometimes the hardest part of writing is starting. If anything, write a single word. Then expand that word into a sentence. Expand that sentence into a paragraph. Once you’ve started writing, the process usually becomes easier and more enjoyable. When you need to take a break from writing, stop in the middle of an interesting story or paragraph. Then, when you return to your work, it will be easier for you to start again where you left off instead of wondering where to go next.

Another way is to start at the easiest part of your story, or begin will a topic you really want to write about. If you find that you’ve come to a stump and simply cannot keep writing, consider recording your thoughts and memories and transcribing it later, adding in additional details.

Expert Tip: If you are writing electronically, remember to save your work often. It would be frustrating and demotivating to lose all your progress and hard work to a computer glitch or failure.


Review and Evaluate What You Have Written

Writing a first draft is only the beginning of your personal history process. Some of your best writing will happen as you review and revise what you’ve written. Take the time to rewrite sentence that don’t work as well as you’d like them to.

Getting a trusted friend, colleague, spouse, or family member to do the same will point out mistakes or confusions you may have skipped over. As you’re reviewing, ask yourself and any others helping you the following questions:

  • Does the reader feel involved and care about the outcome of the stories?
  • Is your writing organized? Do the stories flow well? If not, how can they be improved – rearrangement, additional details, etc.?
  • Do you have good sentence structure? Are any sentences too long or complicated, or do you have too many simple sentences?
  • Are the identities of people in the stories clear? For example, if you have mentioned Grandma, have you elaborated on which grandma? Do you explain which aunt you’re talking about when you say, “My aunt gave me my favorite Christmas gift that year”?
  • Do any details or events need to be clarified or elaborated on?
  • Have you included too much or overwhelming detail?
  • Do the stories need to be shorted or lengthened to make them more enjoyable?
  • Are there any spelling or other grammatical errors? These types of mistakes become more apparent when the text is read aloud.
  • Do you use repetitive phrases or words often? For example, do too many sentences begin with, “I remember”?
  • Are names, dates, places, and other details accurate?
  • Have you used the proper tense throughout the entire history?


After the Review

You must decide what input and feedback is most valuable to revision. Sometimes a reviewer will express a concern that will indicate a problem besides the one mentioned. For example, a reviewer may say that a certain story is too long, but perhaps length is not the real issue. You may need to consider how to retell the story or describe events in another way.

Also, keep in mind if a reviewer makes a comment on a universal issue, for instance, using the proper tense or the same phrase within a certain area, it may apply to other areas within your history. Take the time to make sure the issue is addressed.

Expert Tip:

Record your story on tape. Considering reading your story on tape and then listening to the recording. Do you feel that it is honest and worth listening to? Does is accurately represent your life?

Be careful when using information about living people. Be extremely sensitive to personal information, such as dates, sensitive issues, and contentious stories, of individuals who are still alive or who have living family members who may read your history. Never publish anything that you would not want to appear in tomorrow’s newspaper. Also be cautious about including addresses and phone numbers.

Now is also the time to decide where to insert photographs, letters, certificates, and other physical or visual documents.


Decide How You Want Your Finished History to Look

Play around with layout. It is a good time to review and adjust the appearance of your work. Consider line spacing, headings of chapters, and subheadings. You may decide to add or delete some of the design and layout elements as you work. Some elements may be:

• Cover page • Title page • Preface (where you share your thoughts and feelings about your project) • Table of contents • Lists of photographs and illustrations • Chronology (a quick and concise overview of your life in a page or two) • Narrative • Appendixes (family group sheets, pedigree charts, will extracts, handwriting samples, favourite recipes, and so on) • Maps • Index

Expert Tips:

Be generous with photographs. Most people look at photographs before reading text. Photos will create interest in reading accompanying test. Place photographs where they will be relevant within the writing.

Consider the layout of your history, such as the font, its size, and spacing, to make the text easy to read. If you plan on printing double-sided, be sure to leave margins on the binding size of each page wide enough to allow for binding. This is usually at least a quarter inch wider than the normal edge of a type-written page.


Resources

Websites

Books

  • "From Shoes Boxes to Books: Writing Great Personal Histories" by Amy Jo Oaks Long. Ten-step program to creating a personal history.
  • "From Memories to Manuscript – The Five Step Method of Writing Your Life Story" by Joan R. Neubauer


Appendix

For suggested questions to prompt personal recollections, and for tips on preserving family photos and artifacts, go to the Appendix.


Websites

  • Jrnl.com – New website to ldsjournal.com. Questions to trigger memories.
  • Cyndislist.com – Links to various sites with help on writing personal histories.
  • GenWriters.com – Help on writing personal histories.