Writing Your History: Some Helpful Ideas

Writing Your History:

What form can my history take?

Written, tape-recorded—either you dictate it or have someone interview you—slide-sound, or movie.

Where do I begin?

List the major events along with the dates in your life. This is called a time-line and will get more detailed as you recall more events.

Then, to store information as you gather it, make a filing system—binders, manila folders, or index cards—divided into specific subjects or topics. The topics come from the areas of your time-line, such as family background, where you store information about your mother, father, brothers, sisters, grandparents, etc.; youth, adolescence, and so on. You might also want to use geographical divisions in your file system according to the various places you have lived and what happened to you there, or special themes, such as school, work experiences, or influential people. You’ll want a special section for spiritual experiences. Each of your categories or topics can be the subject of a separate chapter in your life story.

Where does the material for a personal history come from?

No less than eight types of sources can help you. Most of these items you could place in the right category in your file.

1. Diaries: Because life is usually long and detailed, a regularly kept diary is probably the most valuable single source of personal history. Write in a diary regularly, if not daily; write about your feelings, thoughts, observations; and use good quality paper with clear handwriting or typing.

2. Letters: Letters go two ways—to and from. Letters to you provide important information because the writers often respond to things you told them. Letters from you can be rich sources, too, if you can track them down. If you do not make carbon copies of letters you send out, then you will need to contact recipients of your letters and arrange for photocopies or a loan of the originals. Also, if you wrote a weekly letter to someone summarizing your week’s activities, in time those letters would add up to a fine history.

3. Documents and artifacts: Papers and objects important to our lives deserve to be saved, such as birth, marriage, and missionary certificates, awards, report cards, and diplomas. Also include original drawings, paintings, poems, songs, and talks. More bulky but still important are artifacts of importance to you—tools, musical instruments, jewelry, hats—or products of your own talents or labors, such as carvings, sewn items, and handicrafts. Official records are also useful—government and Church records, newspapers, school yearbooks, organization minutes, and medical and legal records.

4. Photographs: Thanks to modern easy-to-use cameras, we now have scores of pictures of our children, compared to the skimpy handful of photos we are lucky to have of Grandmother’s girlhood. We ought to use our cameras generously and then label each picture with name(s), place, and date. An annual family picture becomes a treasured record of physical change. Beyond just faces, pictures ought to capture typical work and play situations. How many of us really document our everyday experiences, such as pictures of our dentist, doctor, piano teacher, visiting teachers, home teaching partner, children in school, Father mowing the lawn, and Mother fixing dinner?

5. Tape recordings: Tape recorders, like cameras, are excellent resources for personal histories. You might record voices of children year by year, with a separate tape for each child to add to; dictated life stories—often easier than writing; taped oral history interviews of us or by us with relatives; talks; musical or dramatic performances; cassette letters to family members away from home; special home evenings.

6. Recollections of others: President McKay often quoted Robert Burns: “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us!” Written or tape recorded, other people’s memories of us can provide a wealth of insight. People to contact: your parents, children, brothers and sisters, teachers or students, employers, employees, neighbors, close personal friends, local Church leaders, visiting teaching partners, doctors, and former classmates or roommates.

7. Life sketches and autobiographies: It is sad that most people write only a brief ten- to fifteen-page life sketch as their record of a rich, full life, when in fact full chapters could be written or recorded about each stage of life—at least one chapter each on childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, prime adulthood, and later adulthood—and about special themes, such as parenting, work experiences, religious work, family roots and background, influential people, life philosophy, and humorous episodes.

8. Your memories: The most important source of all is your own memory. Think about who’s in those fuzzy snapshots and why they’re important. What do you remember about the place, the time? Jar your memory with other things: visit your old schools, listen to old records, see movies that were filmed about the years you grew up, brainstorm with brothers and sisters or old friends. While you ride the bus to work or mow the lawn, brainstorm using your own memory and seek to remember things related to one category of your filing system. You’ll be surprised how it pays off.

What do you do with this material after you’ve collected it into your files?

Pick one of your files, organize all your notes in it, and write an outline of that part of your life. Using that outline, write a rough draft. Try to tell a lively story, expressing your feelings about what happened. Tell why and how, not just what happened. Your first draft will tell you where you need more information. Track it down and add it in. Let other people read the rough draft, listen to their reactions, then rewrite it. Do a third draft, if necessary.

Then what?

Add whatever finishing touches are most helpful—pictures, a title page, an introduction, appendixes at the end, if it’s a written history; music, other voices, such everyday sounds as your doorbell, if it’s taped.

What about distributing it?

If it’s written, you can get it printed—check around for price estimates—or you can photoduplicate it yourself. If taped, you should store your original or master copy on reel-to-reel tape and not on cassettes, in order to prevent later print-through and garbling and to make later copies sound better.

When should I start?

Today. And when it’s done, add to it every year—you’re making more personal history each day of your life.

[illustration] Illustrated by Ron Eddington

William G. Hartley, research historian and oral history director in the Church Historical Department, serves as executive secretary in the Salt Lake Granger North Stake.