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More about My Words

My Words Are Gonna Linger    Read Susan's review of My Words Are Gonna Linger for

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Interviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Susan Albert conducted this interview with Paula Yost, editor of My Words Are Gonna Linger. (Story contributors Trena Cleland, Andrea Gross, and Debra Moore also helped supply answers to Susan's questions; their names introduce their replies.)
Posted on 03/28/2009

Please tell us how this delightful book—My Words Are Gonna Linger—came about? There must be an interesting story behind it!

Paula: Former Association of Personal Historians President Jeanne Archer (2006-2007) first envisioned this book while roaming the warm stacks of the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver one chilly evening during the 2003 APH Conference in Denver. Jeanne quickly planted the seed of her idea when she came rushing into the board meeting the next morning, smiling and waving a copy of I Thought My Father Was God: And Other True Tales from NPR's National Story Project by Paul Auster. It would be a while, though, before her dream—creating an anthology comprised of excerpts from personal histories—could be realized. The project began to take shape in 2006 with the support of the board of directors and a few dedicated volunteers.

How did you go about soliciting the stories? From whom? Did you establish any criteria?

Paula: Our intent was to show the depth and breadth of our work as personal historians, so we limited eligibility to APH members. Although a few submissions were actually written by students of members who teach life writing, even those submissions had to be made by the member/teacher. From the original Call for Submissions: "Consider stories that surprise and delight, ask us to reconsider assumptions, share a lesson learned, tug at the heart strings, or make us laugh. Look for stories that reveal unexpected family history, shed new light on a historic event, or otherwise demonstrate the power of capturing personal histories."

With a maximum 1,500 word count, the format could vary, but we asked that all work be suitable for a general audience and not contain libelous material. The subject matter should consist of true stories, tributes, or ethical wills gathered from:

  • Personal History Clients (Excerpts from memoirs)
  • Senior Centers or Similar Organizations (Stories written as a volunteer activity)
  • Celebrities
  • Witnesses to Historic Events (Veterans, Civil Rights Workers, Political Figures, Woodstock Attendees, World Trade Center Victims, etc.)
  • Family and Friends
  • Corporate & Community Leaders
Each entry had to be accompanied by a brief explanation of how the personal historian captured the story. Not the technical details, but the "story behind the story" that demonstrated what it means to be a personal historian.

What qualities distinguished the stories that you included from those that you declined?

Paula: Our goal was to select works reflecting a broad and balanced range of stories, styles, and approaches. In the end, we succeeded far beyond my expectations. It was a challenge, of course, since we received 130 fine entries and finally had to choose the forty-nine that best accomplished our goals and that would have mass appeal. Selections that stood out in my mind included tales of people who either changed a small bit of history or who were changed by it, philosophies tenderly shared through ethical wills or letters, life lessons described for the benefit of loved ones, and humor held close in the most trying of times and the best of times. For each submission selected, there was no doubt that the subject of the story had touched others in one way or another and made a difference, or that the work would be informative, entertaining or even inspiring to the reader.

Did you encounter any particular problems in the editing of the stories? What was the greatest difficulty?

Paula: Funny you should ask. The process became a bit complicated because we essentially were dealing with two authors—the personal historian (contributor) and the narrator (client/storyteller)—and needed approvals of edits along with releases from both. In some cases, the narrator had passed away, so the personal historian had to track down a viable member of the family to request such approvals. In one case, we were dealing with a language barrier that kept interfering with the person being able to comprehend my edits, much less approve them. Then we had to go through much of it again when we decided at the last minute to add photos to the book. All this took an inordinate amount of time and patience, resulting in many delays but ending well. As you know, Susan, editing an anthology is always a challenge. But don't you just love the results and feelings of accomplishment when you're done?

The stories in the book are arranged in three sections. How did you decide on these sections? Ahead of time? Or did they emerge during the selection process?

Paula: After much discussion and tossing around ideas about organization of the anthology, Pat McNees (project manager) and I sought input from a few of our contributors. Shizue Seigel, author of "A Trunk of Dreams" and "The Hannan Family," came up with an idea "to make the book easy to use for both beginning personal historians and potential clients by dividing it into sections that address:" Part 1—Why Create a Personal History (Tributes, Ethical wills, Varied Historical Perspectives.); Part 2—Putting the Pieces Together (Ways to Collect Stories: Journals, Letters, Oral Histories, etc.); and Part 3—The Many Faces of Personal History (Styles for Telling the Stories). We loved Shizue's idea and went with it. This organization made the job of story placement much simpler. Bless you, Shiz!

In the preface, you say that authorship is an "unusual issue" with personal histories, and explain that several people may be involved in eliciting and recording a piece of life history. This must occasionally present an interesting problem. Would you like to comment?

Andrea Gross, Doin' Things One Way and The Jeweler From America: I am both a long-time journalist and a personal historian, and while there are certain overlaps between the two professions, there is also an important distinction. As a journalist, my job is to gather information and mold it into what I believe is a coherent and meaningful story. It is how I see the truth. As a personal historian, my job is to help the storyteller tell his or her truth. I am merely a conduit. The story belongs to the storyteller, and he or she is the one who decides how that story is told.

Trena Cleland, Sand Hills Murder Mystery and Confiscatin' Feelings: An oral history interview can involve a large cast of characters: the subject, whose story may contain conflicting or inconsistent statements; the subject's family members, who sometimes dispute the subject's version of a shared memory; the interviewer, who often plays the role of detective in ferreting out the facts; the transcriber, who must decide how to typographically represent accents and vernacular; and the editor, who reorganizes and "massages" the transcript for readability. Ultimately, the goal is to document the story as the subject remembers it, and to consider it complete only when the subject's approval is obtained.

Of these stories, do you have a favorite or favorites? Why? What makes them special?

Andrea Gross: My favorite stories are those in which the voice of the storyteller comes through loud and clear. Not everybody has a tale that will rivet others, but everybody has his or her own way of expressing himself and his own way of looking at the world. In short, in my opinion the best stories are ones that reveal the narrator's personality. They're more about who the person is than about what he's done. I'll leave it to the reader to decide which stories best accomplish that.

Trena Cleland: A Taste of Life, by Australian APH member Annie Payne, is a wonderfully simple tale of an ordinary household object—in this case, her mother's green glass butter dish—that plays a role in many childhood memories. The dish provides a launching point for reminiscences about family meals, traditions, and relationships.

It seems to me that this book could be a wonderful resource for a class on personal history. In fact, a class might even be based on the book, and divided into the sections that you have chosen as the structure of the book? Did you compile it with this idea in mind?

Paula: As I mentioned earlier, our intent was to show the depth and breadth of our work as personal historians and to demonstrate the power of capturing personal histories of everyday folks. We also envisioned the book as a learning tool for beginning personal historians as well as a teaching aide for those interested in offering life-writing workshops. The organization of "My Words..." lends itself quite well to all these purposes in my opinion.

If a reader is considering the possibility of compiling a collection of personal stories, what suggestions do you have?

Debra Moore, The Legend of David Potgeter and From the Ashes of Warsaw: Start with a story that is close to your heart, probably a time in your life filled with happy memories. For instance, the first story I wrote about my own life as a fifth and sixth grader going ice-skating every night at a nearby rink. It is such fun to put yourself back in a time and place to relive memories that will spur you on to write about other times and situations. Once several stories of happy times have been recorded, you can branch out to the "life altering" stories, which may well include sad as well as happy memories.

Andrea Gross: Most important: Get started now. The details of how you do it aren't nearly as important as the fact that you're actually getting the story down. Any family history is better than no family history. Story-telling is always better than story-writing. Even if you're a terrific wordsmith, your memories will flow more easily if you talk them rather than write them. Talk your stories into a recorder, and leave the organization until later.

Some people like to tell their stories to a family member. But people speak in familial shorthand when talking to relatives; they omit details because they correctly assume a degree of previous knowledge. Yet those details are exactly what future readers will need to fully understand the story. If you choose not to use a professional personal historian, pair up with a buddy and alternate telling and listening.

Trena Cleland: There are any number of memoir-writing classes, workbooks, and websites available to help facilitate the writing of personal stories. The APH website has a "Getting Started" link, and the StoryCorps website offers "Great Questions." These resources, and many others, provide jumping-off points for those who are inspired to write brief reminiscences and gather them in a collection.

Paula: The Story Circle Network is one of the best resources available for women interested in writing their memoirs or stories of life. Not only do they offer educational guidance through their online classes, mentorship program and editorial service, they have provided encouragement and support for thousands of aspiring women writers through their story circles, retreats, conferences, and countless other programs for more than a decade.

Thank you, ladies. Your book is an inspiration!