Our most recent double biography and family history has been the most delightful and rewarding project. Originally commissioned for Alex’s 90th birthday, the project grew to include Chris’s life story too. It covered their family histories, their growing up years, their life together, their career, golf and family lives, and finally their amazing legacy followed by their children and grandchildren’s contribution.
My Life in Broadcasting: It’s been a lot of fun
By Cliff Peel
Cliff Peel has spent his entire career on the front line of broadcasting in both radio and television. He has thrived on change and adventure, and now has a remarkable story to tell. He was in news radio journalism and television for forty years and has pretty much seen it all from when journalists used Morse code to send stories from the bush to regional stations, to the first uses of sound inserts that could be played in the middle of a broadcast, to the modern 24 hour news cycle.
There was a great article in The Conversation about the stories that we tell each other and what they mean. Their research revealed that ‘the more children know about their own family history, the healthier and more resilient they are.’
The article also explains the Seven Basic Plots that these stories usually follow.
Briefly, these plots are: the Quest (think Lord of the Rings), Voyage and Return (Ulysses), Rags to Riches (Cinderella), Tragedy (King Lear), Comedy (Will Ferrell movie), Rebirth (The Ugly duckling, Shrek), and Overcoming the Monster (Star Wars’ Darth Vader).
The voyage and return metaphor provides loved ones with hope that despite ‘travelling’ to a far off land in enduring the illness, with time and attention they will return.
It could be a big print run, a small one, a single book. Your biography could just as easily have no print form and be purely an e-book. Traditionally the concept of an autobiography or a biography has almost always included the printed page, often very expensive to produce in small numbers. Producing a downloadable PDF e-book is a very cost effective way of creating a professional text that can be sent to large numbers of people via email.
One new medium of publication is Joomag. They allow you to put music, photos and text together in an interactive presentation format. The advantages are most pronounced when there are limited resources and there are a lot of poignant audios.
When we ask our elders to tell us their stories, and place emphasis on what they ‘have done’, does this devalue what they ‘do now’ and ‘will do’?
There has been significant discussion on the personal historian community about this issue and I hoped to offer my own thoughts.
If conversations with our loved ones were limited to their pasts, then I would agree that their presents and futures are being devalued. In my own experience though it is the present and future that usually occupy the vast bulk of the airtime, and only when I go out of my way to talk about the past.
The present is what is most obvious and most clear. The near past and near future are also very relevant because they are a guide to each other. But just as it is uncommon to talk to a teenager about what they will do when they have retired 50 years hence, talking to our elders about what they did when they were children is also very distanced from our thinking.
The further we move along the timeline from now, whether that be past or future, the less likely they are to come up in conversation unless we direct the conversation there ourselves.
To direct our gaze to any place on our timeline is worthwhile, but none should be at the expense of the others. The danger of focussing too much on the distant past as the expense of the present and near future would be negligible for most.
Creative writing, its not just seeing and feeling, it’s the defining moments. It’s finding out what were the turning points, like branches that helped theme structure a person’s life. What were the big events, that define a person. The defining moments are when you put everything on the line and you don’t know the outcome will be. You just have to stand up. It’s the make or break, the cross roads, you cant go both ways you have to just pick one.
The Association of Personal Historians is the peak organisation that run conferences, events and workshops and provide a number of invaluable resources for their members. They give a really helpful overview of why personal histories are so important. Essentially, connecting the generations is something that is valuable for all generations, we can preserve our memories and leave a legacy.
When our loved ones pass on, if their stories haven’t been recorded, then the grandchildren cannot get as much our of their heritage as they might have liked.
I have just read a great post on the Association of Personal Historians’ page about what people can do over the festive season to engage with their families.
Here are their five major tips:
- Collect family recipes and the stories that go with them
- Collect family stories and photos about the holidays
- Start a family facebook to share stories and photos
- Photograph special momentos and record their stories
- Ask about family members who died before you were born.
I’d like to add one to their list. Ask one of your family elders to prepare three stories about their life when they were a child, and then do a recording when the whole family is present, perhaps before or during your Christmas lunch or dinner. This spotlight might be daunting at first, but once your precious elder gets going, they will love sharing with their memories with a loving and supportive family. They will also love answering the questions that will follow from all generations present.
Another enjoyable idea is to go around the table and ask everyone to tell the story of their favourite Christmas when they were a child. Suggest that they also include how old they were and why that Christmas was so special.
Biographies have become very specialised. All biographers need to be adept at listening and asking the right questions to draw out the stories that made the narrator (the subject of the biography) the person they were, who they have become, who they are now. All this happens in real-time in an interview. So much comes down to feel and judgement – which topics should be pursued; which have the greatest charge, and which topics aren’t going anywhere?
But there are also very different skills that need to come to the fore. The biographer must be a master of detail yet be able to focus on the big picture. The biography demands synthesis – to bring the big topics and narratives together with those details in a creative and engaging way. At the end of the day, a biography needs the same rhetorical appeal as any story does. The writing must be a weaving of the voices with the dates, events and photos. When these different skills and materials come together, the biography or family history is bound to capture of the attention of the children, grandchildren, for generations to come.
This past month I had the great honour of attending the Association of Personal Historians annual conference held in Fort Worth, Texas. One of major takeaways I had was that there are so many ways to write a family history.
Probably the most familiar is the traditional ghost writing where a biographer collects all of the photos, interviews and diaries and writes in the first person. The book is completed chapter by chapter and the life story is drafted and reviewed by the subject. At the end of the process, it’s their name on the book, which they can give to friends, family and the public.
One area of great interest for myself is in an assisted biography where the biographer essentially coaches the subject to write up their own story. The skills of drawing out the stories, framing the chapters and fully supporting the subject to write their own story. As a life story coach you take on the role of strategist and editor, rather than front line writing.
The third methodology is family history written in groups, where a group of writers all meet weekly or monthly to cover different parts of their lives and work through the entire process. As of yet I’m not sure of any groups like this in Australia, but I’d love to join one in the future.