Excuse 1 - We're self-conscious writing or talking about ourselves
Solution – Start your story by talking about other people or major world events you lived through. You may never grow comfortable enough to write a first-person autobiography of life as you lived it but perhaps you can write a third person narrative of life as you observed it. People will eat it up! If writing is the obstacle, grab your smartphone and record a short story with your camera set to video (make sure the volume is on). If it’s horrific you can delete it and do it again.
Excuse 2 - We feel inadequate about our writing, storytelling, or editing skills
Solution – Brené Brown encourages people to be vulnerable. State your weaknesses and fears up front. One of the most well-known scriptural figures is Moses and when the Bible says God called him as a prophet he complained, ‘I am slow of speech’ and ‘I am not eloquent.’ Moses got a spokesperson to help him. If you’re that desperate, get someone to help you, but know that you are judging yourself more harshly than others will judge you. If you need a free tool, Grammarly is a free app for most computers and will highlight grammatical and spelling errors as you type. Personally, my favorite family histories are the ones with broken English, bad punctuation, and colloquial speech. That immediately lends a bit of veracity and likeability to their story. They clearly aren’t pretentious or trying to impress.
Excuse 3 - We feel guilty about something in our past or don't want to relive difficult times
Solution – Everyone has regrets. You can take one of two approaches. First, you can opt to tackle it head-on. Talk about the elephant in the room or the family secret that is crippling you. Second, be vague and state that you have regrets you’ll go to the grave with but explain you’d like to write a few things you think might benefit others and not cause harm. And not to trivialize your sorrows, but whatever happened to you or whatever you did 50 years ago has probably happened to someone else. No one is that unique. Google it, search for it on YouTube; you may be surprised to see others have already addressed the issue and it may not change how you deal with this, but it’ll lighten your load to know you’re not alone.
Excuse 4 - We procrastinate the task because we're busy or think we'll do a better job 'someday'
Solution – You will die someday and you may die tomorrow. No one knows what the future will bring. If you’re too busy to write your personal history today, at least jot down a timeline, a list of major life events, a list of people or experiences you’re grateful for so if you die tomorrow, someone can take your little note and write a short biography of your life. Heck, write your eulogy. Give someone a clue what they should say at your funeral. You’ll be part of the majority who never write their personal history but you’ll potentially leave a breadcrumb trail someone else can follow.
Excuse 5 - We're perfectionists and don't want an imperfect final product so we never start or we never finish
Solution – It’s hard to believe so many crappy writers are perfectionists, but it’s pretty much all of us. As I cleaned out my family history boxes I was shocked to find so many unfinished family histories I’d started for various people but never finished. I visualize a hard-bound, well-edited, beautifully crafted life story but I don’t have the time or means to create that so I stop mid-project. Now I’m picking up those half-written histories and giving myself permission to create an imperfect project. I’ve even stamped “DRAFT” on the front so I feel less guilty about the current state of things. Guess what? People love rough drafts! People are grateful for anything. For a few relatives, I have only the first 20 years of their ancestor’s life story recorded (I recorded oral histories on cassette tape) but that’s twenty more years than their family has had so they’re thrilled with my simple offering. Give yourself permission to create a less-than-perfect project. Your failed writing attempt is better than nothing which is what most people have right now.
Excuse 6 - We don't think our lives are important enough to record
Solution – You’re right. Most of the world probably won’t take the time to read your history or if they do, have you as the center of their interest. Events you lived through and your feelings or experiences will be what they take from the story. You’re wrong. Your family or kin will be thoroughly vested in getting to know you better; learning what made you tick. They share your DNA or cultural upbringing and reading a family member’s story after they’re gone is like resurrecting the dead; getting to listen to an old, familiar voice. Family won’t care if your story is about major life events or your dishwashing routine, they just want to hear your voice again. I’ve given myself a migraine, crying after relistening to my father-in-law’s run-of-the-mill stories. He was a steel-worker who took on odd jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over the head of his six young boys. His stories are all about never having two nickels to rub together and attempts at finding work and making money–I love every one of them.
Excuse 7 - We're afraid
Solution – Fear is our common obstacle. We are not born-writers and we aren’t supposed to be good at this yet. We don’t write because we’re good at it; we write because our stories will matter to someone. Focus on your reader or audience and what you can share that might lighten their load or make their journey easier. It’s very selfish to be fearful and withhold what could benefit others. Make your goal be to serve your family by sharing a few life lessons or handing down advice that benefitted you. It’s not about you; you’re just the channel the stories need to come through.
Excuse 8 - It's hard work and requires consistent effort and follow-through
Solution – Yes, a 200-page life history is hard work but you don’t have to create that. You can start with the meagerest of offerings. Jot down one paragraph about what you’re grateful for today. Tomorrow, if you feel like it, jot down the best advice you were ever given. When the mood strikes, jot down a funny story you remember. Keep these jotted notes in one place. Enough short stories make a compiled history. But even just one jotted down story will thrill your posterity or kin.
You can laugh or you can cry. Lighten up. We’re all insecure about our voice, written or recorded.
The History Makers claims the largest collection of African American Oral Histories online.
Telling Their Stories has oral histories of witnesses to important events of the 20th century including the Holocaust, Japanese American Internment, and more.
You have shared some of these experiences and your stories matter.
Oral Histories vs. Written Histories
My favorite histories are Oral histories and video is getting more popular every day.
I love to hear someone’s actual voice telling the story. My next favorite is a transcribed oral history. The great thing about these histories is they are less formal and sound more authentic than some very organized, chronological life histories. If you’ve got writer’s block, turn on a video camera and start talking.
You don’t even have to aim the camera at your face; you can aim it at a photo or photo album. Turn your phone camera to video (with the volume on high) and go through family albums focusing the camera on a photo in the album while you tell the stories associated with each photo. Or, if you’re super-comfortable, set up your camera and video yourself as you tell the stories that go with each photo.
Written Histories are the most popular and the most widely available–check your local library.
If you love to write, start with a written history. Check your local library for biographies and autobiographies. Go through family papers to see what stories ancestors shared and think about what details you can add to clarify their stories or add more insight.
Start small, but do something today. Even if it’s just watching other people tell stories or reading someone else’s personal history. We never know how many tomorrows we’ll have so get started today! Best with your family history!!!