Friday, February 18, 2011

On personal history

In 2009, one of my Christmas gifts to my children was my personal history. Mine was modeled after my mother's which she gave us as gifts, too. Both my mother and I wrote our histories when we were each about 50, though mine took a couple of years for editing before I finally gave it away.

When I was much younger, I assumed personal history writing was for the "old" folks. (Of course when I was much younger, I thought 30-year olds were old!) But I'm glad that I wrote my first volume at 50. I was old enough to have made significant choices in my life and seen the impact of those choices, and young enough to remember them!

I'm thinking about this, because I recently re-read my history. As I began, I was struck with a horrible thought, that the whole project had been a little presumptuous in the first place. After all, who was I to think that someone would actually want to read it? And yet I did (and do) enjoy reading my mother's history. And my children and wife have been kind enough to be complimentary of mine.

My process of writing took me quite some time. When I began to write, I went chronologically, and began writing what I could remember. I found the more I wrote, the more came back to me, and often I'd go back and add another story to what I had already written. I also used family letters (which we've written since we were married) as source material, but I really focused on what came to mind while writing. My intent was not to tell every detail of every story, but to get the broad arc of the story of my life with enough details to reveal who I was at various life stages.

In my earliest draft I wrote everything – the good, the bad and the ugly. And that process was highly therapeutic. But as I edited, I made a conscious choice to let this be my story, and not someone else's. So no airing of anyone else's dirty laundry – or clean laundry, for that matter. Where I included others in my narrative I tried to focus on my interaction with them. Of course there are many actors in my life, and I tried to include them fairly and in a way that would not cause them embarrassment of any kind. This is particularly true for my children (and I hope I succeeded; that none of them has resigned from the family is a good sign).

Someday I hope to write a second volume. My mother never did, and I wish she had. But the good news is that when she published her first volume, I was an adult, old enough to know her and have solid memories of her. My youngest children may not be there yet for me. So I suppose I'll have to think about the right timing for Volume Two.

Have your written your own history? Have enjoyed reading others’ personal histories?


  1. what's the difference between this and a journal?

    The only thing I regret is that I don't write in my journal as often as I should.

  2. My mother kept a daily journal -- one per year for many years. But her history was more her life story -- an abridgement of those journals and the addition of stories of her childhood.

    Her personal history volume was also relatively short -- less than 100 pages, I think (mine was slightly longer).

    I have not kept a consistent journal, and so the history gave me a chance to pull together the story (and stories) of my life into one slender volume that my children would be more likely to read.

  3. OK, I see.

    I think that the two would create different perspectives. The journal is in the moment, but the personal history is a reflection with hindsight.

    But then, I can't say I've ever written a personal history. Trying to pull everything together would seem kinda daunting...

  4. I've also thought a journal is probably a more reliable source of history, as it's contemporaneous. I know in my mother's history, for instance, she remembered JFK's assasination in a different year than it happened, whereas in her journal (if she kept one that year) she could not have done that.

  5. Paul, I enjoyed your history & Mom's. When I read yours, I felt impressed to do the same, although it seems like such a daunting task. And I keep thinking, what would I write that anyone would care about?

    Your comments about the process are helpful. As you say, perhaps if I just started writing, more would come to me. We Will See...!

  6. I remember when I was studying theatre history at BYU, one of my professors was telling me about the work my fellow grad students were doing -- many documenting the history of theatre in small Utah towns. When I questioned the significance of that work, he insisted it WAS significant, because it was a contribution to the whole story.

    That thought gave me courage as I wrote my own little story.

    (BTW, I would read your history!)