No other family's quite like yours, so capture its history

Those funny tales and memories needn't fade with time and distance.

By Andrea Gross, Special to the Times
Published August 28, 2007

Imagine this: You've gathered with your family for a big picnic, an anniversary party, a family reunion. The family is sitting in the living room, and you start a story.

"When I was a child," you say, "we lived up North, and the snow would get so deep we couldn't see out the windows."

Twelve-year-old Samantha is transfixed, but 3-year-old Jason isn't nearly as charmed. He toddles over to pet the cat. The cat snarls, Jason cries, and Samantha never hears your story.

That's how it goes all too often. The family gets together, the older folks start reminiscing. Then something happens - the soup boils over, the dog gets loose, the kids get tired. The stories don't get told.

And that's a shame, because the real family legacy is the stories, not the sterling.

In the past, it was no big deal to hand down the memories, one generation to the next. But today, families are often separated by geography and, when they do get together, there simply isn't enough time for rocking-chair conversations. Passing down the family history has to be a planned activity and, in most cases, the seniors are the ones who have to initiate it.

Researching data

Many folks start by doing genealogical research. Huge numbers of documents are available on the Internet, but it's more inspiring to begin your research with a visit to the National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA.

The headquarters is in Washing- ton, but the Southeast regional office is 15 miles south of downtown Atlanta, in Morrow. The staff is friendly and can help you find all sorts of information, including census records dating to 1790, passenger lists for all ships arriving at Eastern and Gulf ports, even World War I draft registration cards.

After you research your own family, spend some time perusing the outstanding exhibits in the lobby. By calling ahead, 770 968-2100, you may be able to reserve a guide who will give you a short, fascinating history of the Southeast United States through its documents.

Probing memory

But genealogy is only the beginning of a family history. Data can provide facts - the who, what, when and where of your family background - but only stories can provide the context. Only stories can tell you why people did what they did, how they felt about doing it and what they learned from it.

And stories are buried not in data, but in memory.

Some people can sit in front of a computer, or grab a pencil, and the memories come tumbling out. But most people are better talkers than writers, and they need to tell their stories to an engaged listener.

Some reminisce with a family member, others with a good friend. An increasing number hire a professional to do the interviewing, organizing and, in most cases, the actual writing.

Professionals come with a built-in advantage over a family member: Most of us speak in shorthand when talking to those we know; we omit details because we correctly assume a degree of previous knowledge and understanding.

But those details are exactly what future readers will need to fully understand your story.

In addition, people are often more comfortable talking to an outsider because they know that secrets inadvertently revealed will remain just that - secrets. After all, a listener can't "un-hear" words once they're spoken, but a writer can omit them from the final manuscript.

Preserving history

Assuming the end product is a book, the interviews will be recorded on tape, transcribed to paper, edited and organized to make a compelling story. A good writer rarely tells the story chronologically; instead he or she will extract the themes that run throughout the storyteller's life and weave them through the manuscript.

At this point, the manuscript moves into the production phase. The text must be proofread, photographs chosen and integrated with the text, and the cover designed. Finally, the book is printed and bound. Results range from stapled booklets to volumes crafted in heirloom leather.

Though stories can be preserved digitally or in print, books remain the most frequently used method.

Book or digital? Some choose both. Once the book is complete, they read some of their favorite stories for the camera to add video, which offers depth in facial expression and body language.

This all takes time - lots of time - and hiring a professional can be expensive. Depending on the complexity of the project and the experience and expertise of the biographer, a personal or family history can run from several hundred dollars to thousands.

Andrea Gross is a freelance writer and professional ghostwriter. She can be reached at andy@legacyprose.com.

- - - 

Looking for ghosts

To find a professional ghostwriter:

- The Association of Professional Historians (www. personalhistorians.org) is a trade organization with more than 500 members. There are no membership requirements, so the talent of members ranges from highly skilled to just learning.

-The American Society of Journalists and Authors (www.asja.org) is an organization for professional writers, many of whom do memoirs/ghost-writing.