Your family’s history is important. This video from the Association of Personal Historians explains how it works and why personal historians like me are passionate about what we do. While the APH is no longer active, we historians are and are helping people tell their stories all over the world. I’d love to help you tell yours!
The dusty, faded shoe box was crammed under the workbench. In the midst of de-cluttering fervor my friend said, “Take it home, I didn’t know it was there and I haven’t missed it.” I felt like the Indiana Jones of Garage Archaeology! It was a small memoir encased in cardboard; inside were a number of small items tucked into old jewelry boxes. But they weren’t just objects, each has its own story and some will be sent on to a family member.
This forgotten collection started me thinking about ways you can use the “stuff” you’ve saved as prompts for some personal history work. It’s a great place to begin, especially if you’re stuck on a project that seems too big. Where to start? Problem solved! Whether it’s a box of photos, a collection of tools, buttons, coins, books, recipes, or just “stuff” use that eclectic collection as the basis of your personal history.
Get it out of the box and into your story
The story of these items and why they are/were important can be easily turned into a standalone chapter or even become the start to an entire personal history, you decide.
Gather the existing collection—the how, why, where and when of its existence is a great launching point for your story.
Delve into the details.
Get a medium sized box—begin placing things in it that prompt your memory, either about yourself or the person whose story you are writing. This is an extremely effective step as it helps you recall things you thought you’d forgotten. As you select items for your box keep a running note going about the memories associated with it.
Ask family members and friends to contribute to the memories surrounding the items in your stash. They may even have an object to contribute, like a photograph or old letter. Add to your notes as more memories come to you. If the stash belongs to someone else, interview them. Remember to look at the backgrounds in the photos, the postmark and paper of the letter, the gravy stains on the old recipe—the charm is in the details, take your time.
This is important—don’t skip this step.
Sit and mull the contents of your box with your notes and/or a recorder in hand. If you’re telling someone else’s story, interview them. Be specific and handle each item in the box, taking your time.
If you consider yourself a non-writer, record your thoughts or have a friend write or record while you sift through the objects.
Now, walk away from your box of goodies. Come back to it in a day or few and see what else your mind has recalled since you last spent time together. There will be more, I guarantee it!
Look for a theme—are the photos all of family events? Are they important historically? What was going on in the world at this time? Does a collection of letters tell a great love story? Does it chronicle the preciousness of an ordinary life? Is it a travelogue?
If you are having trouble seeing the theme, a rare occurrence, ask a close friend or family member to look through the box with you and tell you what they see. What stands out?
Takeaway—shorter is sweeter
You don’t need to write about everything to tell a great story. Some of the best stories ever told are just a snapshot in time, one event, one object. If you’ve always wanted to tell your story but have felt overwhelmed, start with these 5 keys and begin. You’ll soon have a powerful, condensed collection of life memories.
Then, voila! You are unstuck and have given yourself the gift of making progress.
A reminder from author Terry Pratchett says “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
Keep it up—