Your memories to memoirs, or a personal history

Of all the projects I work on, I have to say that some of the most rewarding ones are those during which I have the chance to help clients start, develop, and complete the stories of their lives. Working with “average Joes” and “everyday Josephines” is an interest that developed early in my career—when I helped out in the local history room of the Dayton and Montgomery County (Ohio) Public Library back in the 1970s and early ’80s.

I didn’t do much in the beginning except help the reference librarians to research questions by digging up information from “the cage” (where the older and historical properties of the library were stored behind chain-link fencing) and then verify their responses by photocopying documents, pages from history books, and newspaper clippings. The work was extremely interesting, rather like detective work, and certainly deepened my interest in local history. But it was just a stepping stone in a journey I didn’t even know I’d begun.

Eventually, I jumped from that local history room to the county historical society a few blocks away. There, I not only started performing my own research but I also got to transform my discoveries into stories for the society’s newsletter. Still, like the questions I worked with in the library, those adventures into local history primarily involved companies, buildings, street names, and communities; only occasionally did a good question about a local family come in. And, then, the questions were nearly always about prominent families. Finally, when I later moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, and took a position as historical publications editor—well, that was when I finally got to work primarily with people, and primarily with “rag’lar” people.

You see, the North Carolina Museum of History had just started an initiative to gather “his stories” and “her stories” (get it? his stories, as in histories . . .) from the working classes of the state’s residents. The wealthier and ruling classes were, of course, well documented; but in the 1990s, the stories of older residents and their everyday lives were rapidly vanishing, along with the ways of life they reflected, and the museum had wisely taken note. My role was to edit transcribed oral histories and videos and to proofread transcriptions from written letters, notes, and diary entries. Once in a while, I did get to meet the “dignitaries” but generally, that honor was reserved for the staff members and volunteers who did the interviews.

The act of gathering histories from the state’s working classes was somewhat novel in the early 1990s. In fact, many people refused the museum’s advances at first because they believed “no one will care about my life” or “I’m not important; why do you want to know about me?” A few years passed, but eventually, we overcame those beliefs. And, what helped change minds were interviews like this one (a low-resolution pdf), which was used in the museum’s Tar Heel Junior Historian magazine.

Ms Boyette’s story exemplifies a regular, old, everyday existence. But, in reading it, no one can argue with the significance of her memories or the importance of her story. With luck, it’s even helped convince you to consider telling yours and leaving it as a legacy for your family, friends, and community.

Something to think about, anyways . . .

Stephen Evans, www.the-freelance-editor.com
ImYourEditor@hotmail.com
407-898-4299

Dear FutureMe:

A not-so-new but not-well-heard-of Web site has surfaced thanks to a recent article on National Public Radio. The site, FutureMe.org, is intended to enable a person to write an e-mail to himself or herself that will be delivered anytime between a paltry thirty days from now and fifty years into the future. In the past four years, more than 400,000 people have sent messages for a variety of reasons.

Granted, most people address letters to themselves, like a personal time capsule, but a use that would be more pertinent to our areas of interest, is to write letters to others in our lives, letters that will surprise their receivers in the future, just as lost letters and missing postcards have surprised some of us in years gone by. The site does not have a limit yet on the number of letters that can be sent, though abusers who use the site as a simple reminder service are allegedly dealt with . . .

Oh, and in case you’re worried about “moving” (changing e-mail addresses), FutureMe now has a management system that allows updating of addresses—no fair, though, changing or updating those messages! Get started here: FutureMe.org.

Huckleberry Finn under attack, again

Yes, here we go—yet, again. Instead of exposing America’s students to the differences of our society and helping them understand the history of those differences (in essence, teaching them what makes America America), another attempt is under way to just remove a topic from the table and ignore it. Who knew, of course, that Mark Twain used the “n-word” (as this St. Paul Pioneer Press author so safely puts it) two-hundred times in the classic adventure novel? Then, again, who really needed to know? That wasn’t the point of the book then, I don’t think, and, while the point has admittedly changed through the years, it shouldn’t be the point now!

During discussion of the book, [one student] said she was uncomfortable with views she said students expressed—that blacks should go to hell and interracial marriage was immoral, for instance. (see “District may drop ‘Huck Finn’ from required reading list” by Bao Ong; posted online Friday, February 2, 2007)

It’s good that she was uncomfortable, isn’t it? Isn’t that part of the point of educating our youth? To let them know that people are different, that controversies exist and can be debated in a healthy fashion, that times have changed, that we shouldn’t “let history repeat itself?”

No, I should know by now that’s an outdated concept of public education, that such lessons are not on any of the tests today’s students have to pass, so there’s not enough time in the schedule; but, that’s another disturbing story! I guess it could be worse . . . at least they’re not specifically trying to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—this time . . .