Meet Paula Stallings Yost
Paula Stallings Yost is a memoirist and publisher with a background in journalism and public relations. After several years of juggling her freelance writing with a corporate public relations/employee motivation career in Dallas, she rebelled against the urban life and migrated to the piney woods of East Texas. Free to focus on her writing, Yost became lifestyles editor and feature reporter for a daily newspaper.
In 1999, her interest in people and their stories evolved into Heirloom Memoirs, through which she helps others to preserve their family histories in book form. Among Among her editorial projects are Tales of a Scrapper, Profile of a Lone Star Legacy, A Country Cowboy, and Miracles on the Amazon. Yost is also one of the co-editors of What Wildness is This: Women Write About the Southwest, and an editor of StoryCircleBookReviews.org. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Association of Personal Historians and offers writing workshops across the country. This interview was conducted by Susan Wittig Albert and originally published in The Story Circle Journal (Vol. 5, No. 3, September, 2001).
Visit Paula's website.
Interviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 09/15/2001
You describe yourself as a "personal historian". What is that, Paula? Please tell us what you do.
Interest in the collection and preservation of individual and family histories has exploded in recent years. Over the last several decades, American lifestyles have changed dramatically. Career demands and increasingly high divorce rates have resulted in the near annihilation of the extended family. In an effort to strengthen ties with other family members and establish roots for future generations, growing numbers are seeking ways to preserve their past and honor their elders. They utilize such methods as scrapbooks, audio recordings, written collections of family stories, videos, and books. However, many become intimidated when faced with such a daunting task and confusing array of possibilities. A personal historian can help them define their goals and ultimately build their unique family legacy - forming a link for past, present and future generations. As a former lifestyles editor and feature journalist, my career change to personal historian was a logical and natural step. Most of my work has been in book form; however, I have also provided oral histories via audio-taped interviews or simple manuscripts. For more information on the field, check out the website for the Association of Personal Historians.
When you begin working to help someone capture her personal history, what do you do?
First, I get to know my clients and identify their goals. Are they interested in creating a detailed and complete autobiography, a slice-of-life memoir focusing on a few key themes or important years, one specific story, or even a simple and concise family tree with paragraph sketches of relatives? Once we have decided on a path to follow, I develop a brief questionnaire tailored to key periods, places and people within their story. After the questionnaire has been completed, I prepare for the interview process. By the time we sit down for the first interview, the client and I have developed a comfortable rapport and are secure in the direction of their particular project. Gaining the trust and respect of a client is extremely important to one's success in extracting the best possible stories, so I never rush the process and I always listen carefully. If someone is unsure about the necessity of a book as their final product, I strongly encourage them to at least go through the interview process. As most of my work has been with the elderly, it is imperative to get their stories recorded before it is too late. Everything else can wait.
What do you think are the most important elements to capture in any personal history? What are your goals in helping people to create their life stories?
Everyone has a story to tell. These stories bring history and heritage to life for family, friends and community. Often the simplest tales of daily activities in bygone eras offer the most insight into a person's character. Personal histories are not just for the rich and famous. Each person's story has a message and offers the drama or humor of their unique viewpoint.
My first goal is to tell that person's story in his/her true voice. When a descendant sits down to read the story of a great-grandmother's life, I want them to hear their ancestor speaking to them in her own dialect with her own personality shining through - not mine.
As you have worked with people, helping them tell their story, what have been some of the biggest obstacles to success-theirs and yours?
I've been extremely lucky so far and have encountered no serious obstacles. Though many people, particularly our elders, are at first a bit self-conscious and/or wary, they warm to the process rather quickly. It has happened on a couple of occasions that these same clients were having entirely too much fun and didn't want to end the story. When that situation arises, I must tactfully advise them as to what adds to their story and what does not.
Of course, not all memories are pleasant ones. If a client becomes upset while relating a particularly difficult story, I listen quietly and allow them the right to vent those emotions. But I never leave on a sad note. Once we have finished taping, I try to bring them back to the present with discussions of the weather or current matters over a nice cup of tea. Most personal historians are not therapists and should never attempt to act like one. If I feel that a client is becoming dangerously depressed, I will advise a family member or friend of my concerns and leave any decisions for further action to them.
A personal obstacle that comes to mind is my quest for honesty from the narrator. A quote from Thoreau hangs above my computer - "The one great rule of composition is to speak the truth." Sadly, people occasionally weave wonderful stories with little basis in reality. If one point contradicts an earlier statement or sounds outlandish, I try to discuss it diplomatically and with humor. But as most stories are based on individual viewpoints and biases rather than cold, hard facts, I have come to understand that a person is entitled to their truth as they see it.
In addition to helping someone write her story, you also help her publish it in book form . What's involved in this part of your work? What did you have to know when you began? What have you had to learn?
As a newspaper editor, I was responsible for page layouts and graphic design as well as content. Those skills have been a tremendous help in the publication process. Once a manuscript is complete and the first draft has been approved, it's time to review and select appropriate photographs, documents, and other memorabilia for inclusion in the book. Properly placed within the text, these items are key to presenting a more complete picture of the person and a well-rounded account of their life.
Printing and binding options were almost my downfall. There are so many factors to consider -offset printing vs. copying, signature binding vs. perfect binding, etc. Then there is the selection of the best color, texture and weight of paper or binding materials. I spent many months investigating these endless details and searching for reliable vendors. Having guided my client's intricate journey of recollections, I am committed to providing them with a treasured heirloom book. Their legacy stories deserve a tasteful presentation with premium materials that will endure for generations to come. As unique as each narrator, every book is custom designed, printed on archival, acid-free paper and professionally bound by the finest artisans.
What advice do you have for people who are beginning to write their own story—including those who are thinking of self-publishing it?
Do it now. No more excuses! Lock that nasty little critic in your mind away in a closet somewhere and start writing. Start anywhere, but write. Commit a block of time each day and write, write, write. Forget about perfect grammar or chronological order. Just get it down. Start with fond memories that are easy and fun to write about. One story typically will lead to another. Once you have several stories recorded, you can let the critic out of the closet if you must and go about cleaning up and organizing or filling in the blanks. Remember. it's your story and your truth! Presentation is a matter of individual taste. If you're happy with notes jotted down in a spiral notebook, that's great. If not, consider a neatly typed manuscript with photos, etc., included in plastic sleeves within a nice zippered binder. Or visit your local copy shop and order copies for your family with comb bindings and cardstock covers similar to many cookbooks. Better yet, call me or another small-run publisher and we'll talk about a book format. The expense is greater, but so is the end product. Whatever route you take, take pride in your accomplishment.
Do you write every day? Do you consider yourself a disciplined writer?
Yes. With the exception of days I spend interviewing, I write every day. When working on a life story, I commit to completing at least ten pages per day. As a morning person, I typically begin quite early and allow myself no distractions until I have fulfilled my commitment. If I have a particularly productive day and finish earlier than normal, I'll usually continue working to stay ahead. Though some days are tougher than others, it's not much of a sacrifice since writing is my first love.
In addition to your work as a personal historian, you are also a teacher of life-writing. Tell us about some of the programs you have offered or plan to offer.
Currently, I offer two workshops throughout East Texas. The first is titled "Your Life: One Story at a Time". This one-day course covers such topics as Getting Started, Memoir as Opposed to Biography, Making a Plan, Narrative Flow, and Beyond the First Draft. I'm really looking forward to presenting a customized version of this workshop at the Story Circle Network Conference in Austin next February. Folks who are not interested in writing a memoir have also enjoyed my "Cooking Up the Memories" workshop - a one-day seminar on creating a family history cookbook with a brief family background piece and recipes handed down over generations with anecdotes and memories of family gatherings where appropriate. Both classes prepare participants to begin the process of recording family histories and provide workbooks to aid in their future progress. Also, I will be adding an OWL (Older Women's Legacy) Circle Workshop in the fall.
As a personal historian, you hear a great many stories. Are you changed by those you hear and help to write?
The beauty of this work is the friendship and trust that evolves during the process of helping others to tell and preserve their family or personal histories. I have learned a great deal from each client and have grown in the process. Listening to their dreams, heartaches and triumphs has been a special gift that has strengthened my ability to understand human nature and to put things in perspective. Perhaps the most poignant, personal story I have done was that of my father, Elmer B. Stallings. It was not until I interviewed him objectively that I came to know the man rather than the father figure. Now I understand that is the greatest gift I can offer to the families of my clients. I lost my father earlier this year, but having his book, Tales of a Scrapper, has been a great comfort.
Miracles on the Amazon is a collection of stories I wrote and published about a Tyler, Texas, couple's experiences during their forty years of Baptist missionary work in Brazil. Lonnie and Janelle Doyle invited me to read their journals, articles, and letters home from the day of their departure in 1949 until their return to Texas in 1989—offering me a unique insight into their lives and psyches. They are a remarkable couple, and I am still amazed at the power of their faith and their unlimited capacity for love and charity. All proceeds from the sales of their book were donated to the Baptist Mission in Brazil. They have restored this skeptic's faith in mankind.
Thank you, Paula—and good luck in all you do!