Becoming the Family Storycatcher, Part 6: Getting It Done


Photo courtesy of mirsasha via Flickr.

This post concludes our series, which has walked you through the process of creating a family history project. Now that we’ve edited our interview material into a story that relates to our narrator’s life, it’s time to consider how we will deliver the book, audio program, video or scrapbook to its intended audience.

Deciding who’s in the in-club

But before we go any further, let’s consider that audience. Hopefully, at the time you considered the scope of the project with your narrator, you discussed audience.

Some narrators will be more than happy to have your project distributed to every living relative, and maybe the local historical society to boot! But others may be more reluctant to share their life story with certain relatives (maybe they expressed an opinion about them in the interview process…) or with the general public.

The Association of Personal Historians talks about this issue in its “Tips Before You Start” guide:

What is the purpose of this interview? Who will hear or see it? Who will have access to the unedited interview?

Who is your intended audience? Family? Friends? Historians? Researchers? The public? Will the stories based on the interview be published, made available to a select few, or kept private? Does the narrator want the material (or parts of it) kept confidential?

It can be helpful to frame this issue in terms of levels of access, and not either/or. Some narrators may want to have the only copy of their unedited transcript, especially if a lot of contentious or emotionally intense material gets edited out. Another idea for sharing different materials with different audiences is to create a short, highly focused excerpt to share widely – one that is drawn and condensed from your longer project, which can have a more limited distribution.

Another area related to distribution is how and when to debut your book, audio recording, video, etc. If the project is tied to a milestone anniversary event, that’s a natural (not too mention super convenient) venue to celebrate the project’s completion. Holidays of course make good distribution platforms too. But if you finish in March and no family events are scheduled for months, it’s perfectly OK to create an event, such as a screening, a listening party, or a book reading, and invite your tribe.

Talking about the distribution of your project, which is likely to be limited, can bring up the question of why it is important to catch personal or family stories in the first place. Author William Novak reflected on the meaning he’s derived from the private-run books he’s helped to write – and how these books differ in tone and content from many commercially published books:

“After writing half a dozen books that can’t be found in any library or bookstore, I’ve found rewards that mean as much to me as seeing my name on the best-seller list. Often, publishers of commercial memoirs or biographies encourage the writer to pay special attention to the sordid elements of a life, because, let’s face it, scandal, crime, addiction and other human failings are more compelling to most readers than the values I’m likely to be writing about. But when a family or an organization commissions a book, they’re more interested in stories, personalities and lessons, rather than adversarial journalism or sensationalism.”

Need help? Hire a personal historian

Let’s say that after reading this entire series on storycatching you’re still struggling to finish your project. First of all, there’s no shame in that situation. Many of us bounce into a project like this, full of enthusiasm, only to wonder what happened to that energy when we’re editing the material for the fifth time.

But just because the stories you’re catching concern your family doesn’t mean you can’t hire someone to help you! A professional personal historian is trained to help families complete projects in a timely and high-quality manner.

Often personal historians have worked as an writers, editors, audio producers or videographers, and possess amazing storytelling skills, along with a passion for bringing individuals’ stories to life.
Personal historians can help you with a number of key project tasks, including…

  • Locating transcription resources (referrals)
  • Coaching you on how to organize and structure stories
  • Editing/assembling raw materials
  • Assistance with the final formatting of your book/video/audio/etc. and advising you on its distribution to your family members

There are a lot of advantages to working with a personal historian.

  • They do the heavy lifting on project
  • Professional quality writing/editing/multimedia production
  • They are there to help you produce the product you want
  • They provide a fresh perspective on your family’s history
  • Your project will get done!

There are a few downsides to using a professional personal historian, depending on how you look at it.

  • Hiring them can involve a significant investment, anywhere from $300 for a very small project to more than $10,000 to co-write a full length memoir.
  • The end result is not 100 percent your work.
  • Your narrator gives up some privacy in exchange for their assistance, although personal historians hold all materials in confidence in accordance with a families wishes.

At this point, your project is nearly done. Congratulate yourself for doing something important  – both for yourself and your family. Personal historian Jane Shafron, in a blog post on the Association of Personal Historians site directed at potential narrators, put it this way:

“Who you are, and what you have experienced along the way—and what you have learned—is very rare. You are the only true witness to the events of your life! You are also the only surviving witness to so many other important lives. Doing this—recording your story, talking about the family history—is the greatest gift to all of your special somebodies, and to all future generations. It’s also a kind of immortality.”

So get out there, and get your personal or family history project finished!!

The questions to you:

  1. Are you in the middle of a personal/family history project? What do you need to finish your work?
  2. Who will you share the final product with? Have you and your narrator(s) discussed this, or how you will release the project (timing/events)?
  3. Have you ever considered working with a personal historian to finish your project? In what ways might they be helpful to you?


Content bonus!

If you’ve enjoyed this entire series, you can now download a PDF version of all 7 posts!

Becoming the Family Storycatcher – Blog Series PDF

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