A closer look at the work of preserving a life story

On my Process, Price page I outline my approach to the work of preserving a life story.

Here’s a closer look.

Setting the stage

Preserving a life story calls on steps and skills you use crafting nonfiction and fiction. Like a journalist, you gather information through research and interviews, fashion the story and express it clearly. Like a fiction writer or columnist you’re concerned with voice, character and conveying opinion.

Research

Before I interview the person the story is about — the subject—I’ll want to gather some basic information beyond name and age on topics such as family, education, career and achievements.

I might look at communities the subject called home, groups the subject joined and places the subject worked. The idea is to shine light on more than just one or two sides of a subject’s life.

If the subject agrees and the scope of the story permits, I’ll look for letters and seek short, focused interviews with people who knew the subject and wish to add a perspective. The idea, here, is to use other voices to reveal character.

Interviews

I like to talk with the subject about the interview process. It’s best if the subject is at ease with being recorded. I’ll explain that recording helps me capture voice as well as words. We can decide the order of the themes to be explored at this time.

To an interview I like to bring questions that start with the words why or how. These questions prompt a subject to explain and, in the process, offer details. Details make stories more vivid, more real, and may offer words and images that suggest new questions.

Before I stop recording, I like to ask if there’s anything I’ve overlooked. This question can uncover important new information.

When I transcribe, I type out all the words I’ve recorded—mine as well as the subject’s. I’ve found it helps to know exactly what I’ve asked. I should add that I used to transcribe with pen and paper. Now, to save time, I type out the transcripts.

Fashion the story

When I’ve finished interviewing and transcribing, I’ll look over the transcripts and the information I’ve gathered and think about how to organize this material. I’ll look for the heart of the story, a principle or sequence of events to build the story around.

Yes, the subject and I may be inclined to tell the story in the order of the interview questions. But there are alternatives.

A life can be viewed as a series of blocks of time: years spent in one place and then another. It can also be explored through themes, such as childhood, school days, career, marriage and children. Or it can be written around an experience or challenge—a family move, a new career, a life-affirming event.

I’ll talk with the subject about story order and chapter headings. We’ll want to proceed with a clear, shared understanding of the shape of the final product.

Express the story clearly

Once the parts of the text are in the right order, it’s time to edit. This work includes creating chapters, deciding on paragraphs, punctuating the flow of words and deleting bits of conversation that don’t add to the story.

That’s right. I’m suggesting that to make the story clearer and easier to read I’ll likely have to make certain small changes to what the subject has said.

My experience suggests that most people will expect, understand and appreciate this. But to help smooth the process I might take some time to explain what it means to edit. I might also show the meaning by editing a few transcribed pages and sending the subject the unedited and edited versions of the pages.

Editing turns transcripts into a document the subject reviews. Review and the next step, revision, aren’t complete until the document has been carefully copyedited or proofread.

Present the story

There’s quite a bit to production. Steps include design, layout, scanning any photos and obtaining permission to reproduce them, and printing and binding. How much work there is depends on the scope of the project and how elaborate you wish the final product to be. If you aren’t sure about what’s involved in production, consider getting help with it.

Learn more

I hope you find these points helpful. But I realize that you may have questions, particularly if, just now, you’re considering your first project preserving a life story. Should you have questions, I hope you’ll take a moment and send them along.

Why preserve a life story?

It’s a question a friend asked. We were sitting at a table in a restaurant one evening a few weeks ago waiting for meals we’d just ordered. He was skeptical.

I told him that preserving life stories in words and pictures is something people do these days. I added that people without the time or skills to search out and express the details of a life sometimes want the benefits of having one prepared.

But it wasn’t much of an answer and it didn’t really respond to his question.

Walking home in gentle night air after the meal it occurred to me I should have said there are two sides to capturing and preserving a life story. There’s what the person the story is about—the subject—learns from looking back. And there’s what the readers of the story learn from it.

Well, yes, I thought after I’d listened to the eleven o’clock news, you preserve a life story to help people learn about themselves and about others. A moment passed. I thought: Isn’t that a bit vague, though?

So over the next few days I started a list of the reasons I might wish to preserve my life story. The list isn’t much more than ideas, really, and you may not find your reason for preserving a life story here or you may find your reason combines two or more points. In the end, I could see preserving a life story to:

  • Think through and come to an understanding of the steps on the way here
  • Capture in words and pictures the outline and details of a life—facts, memories, reflections, images
  • Draw lessons from turning points, insights or successes
  • Convey feelings, beliefs or values
  • Offer thoughts about life and how to live it
  • Teach children about their ancestors
  • Preserve a viewpoint on decisions reached
  • Chart the growth of a person, family or business
  • Describe the times, places and people a person or family has known

As the list suggests, the subject of a life story can be a person, family member, family or family branch, or a business. The story can begin with a birth or with a principle. It can look back one year or hundreds. The subject, time frame and aim of the telling will influence what the story explores.

At the end of the day, though, a life story is owned by the subject. The subject decides what the story will show. And this, really, is what I also should also have told my friend while we waited for our meals: you preserve a life story to tell your story your way.

A new path

In the next little while you’ll notice this site is changing.

New stories

On visits here, you’ll learn about the kinds of stories I’m working on these days—stories that lead you behind the facts of a life, a practice or a business to the views and feelings of the people who lived them.

Autobiographies, memoirs, personal or family histories, the histories of practices or businesses: these are the kinds of stories I mean. Stories that reveal character, uncover challenges and express values. Stories with lessons to guide a person, family or organization.

Fiction

You’ll also learn about some of the fiction I’ve been writing—although it’s unclear to me, just now, how to offer it to you. The aim is something simple that reaches you directly. Suggestions are welcome.

A new focus suggests a new look—and I’ve planned changes to the design of the site.

What’s behind all this?

I’d written stories about facts, events or opinions for years, mainly to inform or persuade. The stories I found most satisfying usually aimed to explain why something happened, the thought behind a choice.

In late 2013 I picked up a copy of Telling True Stories : A nonfiction writers’ guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and the following summer I wrote a post about it. In the book I found points that echoed my experience and opinions I’d led into debate. The book encouraged me to think of the ways a story can bring together facts, impressions and reflections.

Then last summer on the strength of some research and a few interviews, I wrote a brief, informal life of a grandfather.

The process leaned a little on my training as a journalist—and a little on my years of practice writing fiction. The story was a success in that it brought welcome knowledge of the man’s life and a sense of his character into the lives of grandchildren who hadn’t known him. The experience taught me I’d like to work on similar stories.

All to say, I’ve embarked on a new path.

Comments or questions? If you have either, please feel free to write.

Telling True Stories — a reading

My intermittent search for practical advice and noteworthy insights about writing led me, late in 2013, to a book on narrative nonfiction that I should have read years ago.

The book, Telling True Stories : A nonfiction writers’ guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, is a set of articles adapted from the presentations of accomplished writers and editors at the Neiman Conference on Narrative Journalism. Edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, it is a Plume book that Penguin Group published in 2007.

Don’t let the publication date distract you, by the way. I’ve found tips and ideas in this book that will help me write narrative nonfiction for as long as I care to write it.

Here’s a look at some of what I found in the book.

Tips on narrative reporting. For example, I learned in a section of one article how careful reporting of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste can help a writer set strong scenes and so develop a sense of place in a story. I also learned, here, of a way to get at information you need to set a scene you haven’t observed.

I found interesting opinions on recording interviews in a section of short articles that look into matters such as agreement between what’s taken down in notes and what’s recorded, and between what people say and their views.

I learned about the phases of an interview, including the final phase when a source may make the best revelation. And I thought about the writing life and about some tips on writing well after I read an article that mentions an important rule, which is to observe carefully.

I also learned about how to build yourself into a character, the “I” that holds out the promise of engagement, in an article that looks at the roles of quirks, self-dramatization and contradictions. And I read of the needs of personal essays for conflict, and for personal disclosure and analysis.

I was grateful for the short, clear look at narrative distance in an article that distinguishes between mid-range, a closer and an internal view, and observes that a skilled narrative writer leads the reader to witness action, have the experience and feel it.

I found insights on how to create story from narrative, the relationship between meaning and storytelling, and the moment when a realization of the main character turns a story toward its resolution.

And I learned about the four roles of a story’s ending and about scene setting and sequencing. In an article on getting to a story’s emotional core I learned of four devices nonfiction has adopted from fiction.

The book introduced me to intimate journalism—serious writing about ordinary people seeking meaning and purpose in their everyday lives. It taught the meanings of certain storytelling terms and suggested 13 ways to find story ideas.

Is this a complete summary of Telling True Stories? Not at all. You’ll find, as you read it, that the book covers a lot of ground and offers a great deal more than this article will suggest.

Which leads me to a thought I had as I read the book the first time. Some of the book’s tips might prove useful in forms of writing other than narrative nonfiction. An article applying some of its ideas to other forms may be in order.

How long does it take to write an 800-word post?

The results of a recent and by no means scientific search of mine suggests that many bloggers, perhaps most, take from 30 minutes to two hours and 30 minutes to write a post—and that two hours and 30 minutes of work can yield an 800-word post.

What it takes to produce 800 words

Now, an 800-word post covers a lot of ground if you convey the ideas clearly and in few words. So, to produce one you need quite a few facts and a theme you can develop.

Getting at the facts, reading or interviewing, takes research. Developing the theme and sequencing the ideas takes thought. Research and thought take time. And so does writing if the aim is clear, concise copy—my goal in writing, I hasten to add.

How I write an article

To reach the goal, I write in stages. There’s the first draft, which reveals the story in the information I’ve gathered. I’ll edit this draft as I add to it until I’ve reached what I believe to be the end of the article.

Next, I’ll begin a series of drafts in which I work on accuracy and expression. I usually edit these drafts on paper, paying attention to spelling, grammar and points of style. But I also check for clarity and readability, and I check the logic of the article.

I review an article until I can’t see how to improve it.

Now, there’s a proofing step. I like to read an article aloud or silently, one word at a time. I find it helps if I proof an article a day or two after writing and editing it. Spending some time away from an article can help me see more clearly what I’ve written.

There are other steps that take time—working in elements that support the writing, such as photographs, and attending to production steps, for example. But I won’t consider these here. Instead, I’ll explore how I would use 150 minutes writing an 800-word post.

Breaking down 150 minutes

I’d begin by spending 30 minutes on research and on developing the theme. During five of these minutes, I’d work on narrowing the post’s focus. For the next 60 minutes I’d write, spending five of these minutes developing story elements. I’d spend the next 30 minutes reviewing what I’d written, reserving the final 30 minutes for proofing on the following day. I’d devote at least five of the minutes set aside for proofing for a review of the lead.

Would I find I’d had enough time?

I might, if the article focused on a narrow enough facet of a topic I know well. But I can be critical, especially of my own work, and I’d probably wish I’d had more time to spend on it.

Writing is a craft, after all. You can improve the writing in an article if you take the time.

Some posts take longer to write

How much time would I normally set aside to write a post requiring research and running to more than 500 words? At least four hours.

But I’d set it aside knowing that some posts will take longer. I’ve spent dozens of hours on a post. A few weeks ago I rewrote a post seven times before I was happy enough with it to publish it. And I’ve written and rewritten posts for this blog that I’ll never publish because I can’t find ways to complete them.

On the other hand, it’s true that I’ve written posts in far less than two hours and 30 minutes and cheerfully sent them out into the world. Of course, these posts haven’t usually been 800 words long—and they’ve addressed straightforward themes I know well.

It depends

So, how long does it take to write an 800-word post?

The numbers I’ve found suggest two hours and 30 minutes might be enough—and I might write a reasonably good 800-word post in that amount of time.

But I’d be more comfortable if I had at least four hours over two days to work with, on the understanding that the time I’d spend would vary with the topic and the nature of the post.

So that in the end I suppose I’d answer the question by saying that it depends.

Learn more

To learn more about the work and time it takes to write an 800-word post, feel free to contact me.