Genealogy Wise

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Aug 20th, 2009 by Charles Rice Bourland, Jr.

I have often said it borders on a criminal act to fail to write your autobiography. An exaggeration perhaps, but as you research your ancestors how many times have you wished your father? your grandfather? your great grandmother had written theirs? Why extend this family failure?

Here are some reasons to write such a document.

• Simply because you wish to write;

• Your children probably know little of your first, what, 30 years;

• Your grandchildren probably know little of your first 50 years;

• To communicate the stories of your life and the times you have lived in;

• To provide a gift or Legacy for your family

And wouldn’t an autobiography be the perfect place to share or restate your philosophies on life, religion, ethics, morals and politics?

I begged my own father to do so, he did, and it is today my most prized possession of his. I have read it at least twice a year for the last 30 years. I refer to it more often as I learn more about related events about which he spoke or wrote. Our children will never know much about us when we were children, where we lived, where we went to school, what were the formative aspects of our lives- unless you follow this instruction.
Assuming you are now convinced writing an autobiography is important for your descendants, let’s discuss typical ways to do so.

Chronological order is the most popular style. It is the style I selected some ten years ago and I have been adding to it about once a week as something refreshes my memory and appears worthwhile to add to what is now about 70 typed pages. As I obtained pictures of the numerous homes I used to live in, they have been added. Pictures of my dogs are included for they were important family members. I have written monographs of special memories of each of my children.

Since I lived in an environment for all of my early years my children have never seen, I wrote a monograph on “coal camps”. Here I described truly small towns of 500 residents, all working for the same company, all shopping in the company store and using “script” money for many purchases, most living in company housing and so forth. You may have such a peculiar background in need of telling.

Make the writing descriptive, interesting. Use humor if possible. Describe how you felt about the events as they unfold – the birth of a child, their graduation, the loss of a job, a promotion. Those things which affected you at that particular time.

Another approach would be thematic. You may believe strongly in certain politics or approaches to life and build your autobiography around the events which created your belief system. Then you can build personal events within the theme to show how those events shaped you.

Don’t get bogged down in unimportant details. While you want your autobiography to be vivid, you don’t want it to be boring. Too many details–listing everyone that was at a party or trying to include the all the events of each day–will bog the story down. You also don’t want to have to spend a lot of time researching every last detail, such as the exact dates of each event, or you’ll never finish your story.

If you dislike writing, consider an oral history told from an outline which you can tape or video record. This approach has he advantage of preserving your image and voice. Of course, it requires more planning because inserting stories becomes more difficult than inserting on a computer in WORD.

Some extraneous elements I included as part of my own autobiography include diaries I wrote on major vacations, particularly to foreign countries; life in coal camps as described earlier; a list of the best and worst times of my life; and special memories of my children. Finally, I was a management consultant and that title does not communicate what I actually did. So I wrote several pages on the most important engagements with clients I performed over the years; hopefully providing some definition to “what did you actually do”. The same could be true for many others such as an engineer – what did you help with or develop?

Put what you create onto something which can be preserved, such as a printed book at FedEx Office or a CD or DVD.

Get started. The ideas will come faster than you think. And your descendants will be forever grateful.

More at www.genealogyhowto.com.

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Comment by Renate Sanders on August 25, 2009 at 6:39pm
I think I can... I think I can... I think I can... I WILL!
Comment by Sue Pearson Greichunos on August 25, 2009 at 9:31am
Mr. Bourland~Thank you. I shall pursue the suggestions at genealogyhowto.com.
Mr. Stanton ~ I like the one topic/one chapter/distribution-of-draft-chapters idea you've made. This could work well with my siblings. I guess I wasn't clear about the type of content I'd like to include in such a biographical piece, but it would be exactly as you mentioned -- first-hand memoirs of our growing-up years with, hopefully, added tidbits of ancestral information from my older brothers & sister which my parents may have shared with them but forgot to mention to me. Unfortunately, I also will be missing the input of a brother who died not long ago. His perspective would have added quite a bit of humor, being the most comedic of all of us. This has been very helpful. Thank you very much.
Cordially, Sue Pearson Greichunos
Comment by David B. Stanton on August 25, 2009 at 8:32am
For Ms Greichunos, You have hit upon a very important point. I found the best way to create interest was to start on a single Chapter....one topic. I took their [siblings] contributions, did a little organizing and a modest amount of cleaning up of the verbage, while trying to maintain most of their original wording/expression. Then I periodically would send a draft chapter/document back....even to the ones who were not contributing. As the document grew, the interest level improved, and one person's memory triggered another. Mind you ours was not primarily about genealogical information it was more our first hand memories of our growing up years. I suppose collection of genealogical data would be a different story. By the end I think all siblings were contributing to some extent. One issue we had was that one sibling had died before the project began [she would have been a great contributor] . I was able to find a couple of letters of hers to add, to give her a living presence in the document. Another sister died before it was finished, but fortunately she had made some contributions earlier. I also included some quotes from the history that our father had written, and a poem that our mother had written. We included one chapter about our mother, and one chapter about our father.......this stimulated interest.
Comment by David B. Stanton on August 25, 2009 at 8:19am
Wow, another West Virginian. Neat! Actually I am a New Yorker who has spent the last 40+ years in Charleston, WV and we will be staying here. We are converted to this lovely state (my wife is from LA). I wanted it [history] on paper so I could interest the grandchildren and children a bit more. They need a little catalyst to get them to think about their family history. However I agree CDs and DVDs are also good. Will they be around 100 years from now? Some of the scrapbooks, papers, photos etc I inherited from my father are beginning to show their age.
Comment by Charles Rice Bourland, Jr on August 25, 2009 at 6:51am
For Mr. Stanton, from a Beckley/Mt Hope born WVion, try Lulu.com for a cheap POD book capability. Also, consider a CD or DVD which given today's children lack of reading from paper and the search capability of a PDF document, I could argue never to put it to paper.
Comment by Charles Rice Bourland, Jr on August 25, 2009 at 6:47am
If you will go to www.genealogyhowto.com there are several suggestions to answer your question, among them a letter for all relatives asking for data; preparation of an early Register Report for motivation and other thoughts.
Comment by Sue Pearson Greichunos on August 25, 2009 at 5:49am
This question is both for Mr. Bourland and Mr. Stanton:
I am the youngest of four living siblings, and the person in the family collecting genealogical documentation from scratch. To gather the kinds of information I would like from older siblings (in their 60's) to put into a Family Biography, can you suggest some creative ways to glean information from them. We are a pretty close-mouthed, anti-social bunch of Swedes (no offense to any other Swedes), and I have tried opening up conversations with my oldest brother only to get one-word answers. Discussion with my other two living sibs hasn't gone much better, yet each of them is ecstatic when I produce a new piece of documented information about our ancestors' vital statistics. Help. Thank you.
Comment by David B. Stanton on August 25, 2009 at 5:21am
Great idea. My dad did the same thing and it is remarkable the things he remembered from the vantage point of age 70 yrs. I am one of 8 siblings. Since 2000 we have worked on a collective history of our growing-up years. We are spread across the Eastern Seaboard so collaboration was difficult. We started with emails, and one editor pulling things together. Later we discovered Google Docs. We then took a couple chapters and on Google Docs we made everyone have editor privileges. With this system we were all collectively working on the same document. Participation by all siblings was a little spotty at times but overall it worked pretty well. Recently I pulled it all together on Microsoft Publisher, adding many photos. The final product is 120 pages, lots of photos--- even a short chapter on genealogy, hitting the high spots for the grandchildren's benefit, but references to more in-depth genealogy documentation. The file ended at about 20 meg so we used SENDIT to distribute the large file to many children and grandchildren. I did print out a paper copy for myself. I do wonder how one would produce a bound paper "book" at reasonable expense.

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