There is something about biography, isn’t there? Our fascination with our own life is probably understandable enough. But we are also curious about the lives of others. More than curious, biography is one of the largest categories in publishing and it consumes endless hours of TV and cable broadcasting. From A&E to the History Channel, we can’t seem to get enough biographies. And, with the new tech-tools available to us, personal and family history biographies are increasingly popular.
Our curiosity about the lives of others is not something that People magazine, cable TV and the paparazzi invented just recently. Plutarch, writing about 100 years after Christ, penned around 50 personal history biographies – comparing the lives of famous Greek and Roman identities. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives still rates as one of the greatest feats of biographical writing of all time; and as well as being studied in ancient history courses it still sells by the thousands in the general bookstores.
Even though Plutarch mostly wrote about the Ancient World’s rich and famous, he knew that the measure of a life was not the size of the deeds and achievements – but the moral worth of that life. And the worth of that life would more likely be revealed by the personal details:
“It is not histories I am writing, but lives; and in the most glorious deeds there is not always an indication of virtue or vice, indeed a small thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of a character than battles where thousands die.” Plutarch Life of Alexander/Life of Julius Caesar
So, congratulations in taking the first step towards creating your own personal history biography and joining a tradition that goes back thousands of years. The good news is that preserving your life story has come a long way since Plutarch and parchment. The main options these days include the written memoir, the audio memoir and the video memoir
Write your memoirs
You can start handwriting your memoirs immediately with a pen and an exercise book. It helps to map out some topics – a chronological approach (e.g. “grandparents”, “parents”, “growing up”, “school” etc) is often (but not always) better than an approach based on themes (e.g. “family”, “friends”, “challenges” etc. Ask friends and family for suggestions about topics or stories; kids in particular often have favorite stories which they want to preserve for their own children.
Some people start with a printed memory book that sets out questions and provides spaces for an answer. The challenge for an would-be writer is to just get started with something. Because writing is self-directed, procrastination is the biggest danger in creating a personal history biography in words. Writing can benefit yourself and is a great way to sort out thoughts on complex subjects (as Samuel Johnson said, “I don’t know what I think till I write it down”). But you should find motivation too in the eager eyes of your future readers. You are doing it more for them than yourself.
Once written, it is a good idea to have a hand written memoir typed. (You can hire a copy typist for as low as $1.00 a page.) And, once typed, you can think about having your biography self-published. (“Blurb” and “Lulu” are two reputable, on-line book publishers that allow you to upload your material from a computer and they print books for as low as $10.00 for a 5″x8″ soft cover book – with a full color cover.) Once published, make sure you keep your handwritten copy – your descendants will value it too, trust me.
Advantages of written memoirs: simple, immediate and timeless; the minimum of equipment, the maximum of information; can be printed.
Disadvantages of written memoirs: procrastination; handwriting may be hard to read; can be stilted; not all subjects are sufficiently literate.
Voice Record your life story
Some people audio record their personal history biographies. More often though, life stories are harvested by a relative or a friend or even a professional over a number of sessions using questions thought out well in advance. The old method was to use dictaphone machines with those mini cassettes – or an old cassette player that one of the kids used to play music on back in the day. Now you can buy digital voice recorders that to the same job. Often, these recordings are transcribed and, with some editing, can be turned into a written memoir (see above).
The attraction of voice recording over a written memoir is that it captures something “live” of the person – their voice, their accent, their laugh. Listening, you can feel as if you are in the same room. Having listened to an audio recording, you get to know the person in a way that a written memoir does not allow. The attraction for the subject may be that it is less work to answer questions on audio than to spend time composing written memoirs.
But audio recordings by themselves have a number of problems. First, they are opaque. You cannot flip through an audio recording to find the bit you like. As a result, they tend to stay stored in a drawer or an old shoebox. Second, the machines that play most old audio recordings are disappearing or simply stop working. So for these reasons, audio tapes may not the best home for your personal history biography.
Life stories recorded on tape can be edited and converted to CDs to very good effect though. First, the audio on the tape need to be digitized (basically, you need to run a cable from the headphone jack of the tape recorder into your computer, then open audio editing software to record it to your computer’s hard drive). Then you need to listen to all the audio and in your audio editing software you can break it up into separate segments. The idea is to form tracks for each of the separate stories. Then you bring all those tracks into iTunes and make a set of audio CDs that can be played in the car or passed around to be uploaded to iPods (and all the other modern gizmos that so bedazzle the younger generation). You can even program iTunes so that no matter which computer you upload the audio tracks to, the track names will appear in the person’s play list.
Advantages of audio memoirs: Reveals personality; easier for the subject; can be turned into tracks for iTunes.
Disadvantages of audio memoirs: Requires some expertise to upload to a computer to edit; audio often “locked” into legacy recording devices.
The most recent trend in personal history biography is the video memoir. It’s only been in the last few years that the technology has reached a point that makes video biography practical and affordable. And it is the most engaging form of biography of all the options.
Video memoirs are the closest thing we have to immortality. On video, you can capture stories as well as the personality of the subject. You can bring in photographs and music and all kinds of other material to show the life in all its facets. We have all seen “A&E” biographies; well, you can create those for yourself or a loved one.
You will need a video camera and a lapel mic and a tripod is a good idea. Also, you need a computer and some simple (and free) video editing software to put everything in order. There are plenty of websites that give advice on how to put all that together. There is certainly a steeper learning curve for video biography. You need to know something about video and video editing – which can be learned by older folks but tends to be almost instinctive to the younger generation! Once mastered, the video memoir is the true home of the personal history biography.
Once made, a video memoir can be embedded on a family website or blog or posted to a video hosting service like YouTube and seen around the country and around the world. Families seeking to enlist the interest of their younger members find video biography a more accessible way to expose the kids to a personal history biography and to introduce them to the family’s history – remembering grandparents once they have passed.
Video memoirs are an area where professional help can make a world of difference if you are unwilling to taken on the project for yourself.
Advantages of a video memoir: Captures personality; closest thing to immortality; can be posted to the web and appreciated by family around the world.
Disadvantages of a video memoir: Technically the most challenging of all the biography options; professional help costs money.
Whatever option you choose, know that a personal history biography project will be one of the most important tasks you will ever take on. And, depending on the option you choose, you will achieve the closet thing we have to immortality. Many of the lives in Plutarch we only really know from his biographies. With some planning and a little determination, any one of us can be the Plutarch of our families.