This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. This is the story of Rachael her her career writing people’s life stories.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
Rachael’s grandpa + Rachael
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I grew up in Redondo Beach, a small-ish beach community in Southern California. I was a pretty quiet kid and as a result became a good observer. At first that translated into acting, but it wasn’t long before writing became more appealing. I was a journalist before I became a personal historian. I’m also 32, have been married for 11 years, live in Long Beach, California, and like reading, knitting, jumping on trampolines, random acts of kindness, playing with my dogs, and laughing with my husband.
What does a personal historian do? And how did you come to do this as your career?
Most people have never heard of my profession, so I usually say I help people save their life stories or that I’m part ghostwriter, part historian (ghostorian?).
Basically, I interview people to get their stories, then transcribe and edit their words into a narrative. Once that’s done, I collect photos from the person’s life, layout the book, and send it to a printer to be printed. I can also provide an audio version of the interviews. Of course, those aren’t the only two mediums that personal historians use. There’s also video and digital media as well.
My business’ origin goes all the way back to 1951, when my grandfather was serving as a medic in the Korean War. While there, he wrote long letters to my grandmother, eventually turning those letters into a memoir. Because he took the time to document his experiences, I was able to get to know him as a peer in the same stretch of life. I was surprised to find out how much we had in common, and how similar our writing voices were. This changed my perception of him, and my family in general.
His memoir also made me realize that our personal stories, family histories and traditions are an important part of the legacy we leave behind. They’re the inheritance that families most want to receive, but so often don’t. I started my business, Life Stories Today, out of a desire to help more families preserve their stories.In the last four years, I’ve created life story books that have captured people’s family stories, family recipes, war experiences, travel adventures, love stories, pregnancy journeys and full life histories.
Can you share some snippets of your favorite stories?
A 92-year-old woman was describing what it was like growing up on a farm, which included knowing how to butcher a pig. I’ll always remember this because I wasn’t expecting her to go into so much detail.
“It wasn’t an easy job. First, the pig was hit over the head with an ax and left to bleed out. Next, they would cut through the tendons on the back of the feet and insert an iron rod to spread the legs apart. The pig would be hung by a chain over a tripod or the limb of a tree to drain and cool. Then they cut the belly open, the organs and entrails were removed, and the stomach was thoroughly cleaned of all contents.”
I interviewed a WWII war veteran about his time in the front lines. All of his stories were really interesting, but two of my favorites were about the funny things that can happen during war.
“One night, a cow fell hind legs first into my foxhole. If he had fallen any differently, he would have killed me—luckily, he didn’t. That cow made noises all night. I couldn’t wait to move on out the next day.”
Another time, the sergeant told my buddy, Porfilio, to go check out a little fire in the distance. It was at night. Porfilio slowly crawled to the fire. About halfway there, a German soldier decided he had to pee. He began walking toward Porfilio, so Porfilio turned over on his back and pretended to be dead.”
The German came over and peed all over Porfilio. Porfilio didn’t breathe, didn’t move, even though this guy was peeing all over his face. Later, Porfilio said, ‘I thought he’d never quit.’”
A woman who hired me to document her pregnancy had just finished describing how much natural childbirth hurt, when she said, “Despite all the pain, I would do it again. It’s like getting a college degree; no one can take it from you.” That one statement re-framed the way I saw natural childbirth. Now I see it as an accomplishment.
Tell us about the logistics of your job!
I get my clients through word of mouth, giving talks, my website, and listing my information on the Association of Personal Historian’s website.
Most of the information in people’s stories comes straight from them, though I sometimes do research to add more historical context. I use Scrivener, Word and Dropbox to organize my projects, and print my books through a local printer or a print-on-demand printer like Blurb, Lulu or Shutterfly.
I charge by the project; if it’s an open-ended ongoing project then I charge by the hour. I calculate the project rate by estimating the number of hours a story will take and multiplying that by my hourly rate. From start to finish, my projects can take anywhere from two months to a year. It just depends on the length of the story.
Has this job affected the way you feel about family or aging? Has it changed the sorts of books that you read?
I ask my family a lot more questions now. I appreciate how much we have in common in a way never did before, and love hearing new family stories. I was also inspired to track down relatives my family lost contact with, and discovered I had some second and third cousins living just 20 miles away.
Being a personal historian has affected the way I feel about age, not aging. My job has taught me that people of all ages have great stories. To me, stories are the great equalizer. They make us all ageless.
I’ve always liked biographies and memoirs, but now I read them more often.
What are the biggest benefits of your job? The challenges?
I love what I do. Not only do I get to listen to people’s stories for a living, I also benefit from the storyteller’s life experience and wisdom. Moreover, my job makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.
When you’re in a small but growing field, you’re not only selling your services, you’re educating people about your career. Since people usually don’t have a point of reference when you tell them you’re a personal historian, they have no idea what you do or what you charge. This can make it more challenging to find clients when you’re first starting out (and sometimes even when you’re more experienced).
What’s one thing you’ve learned from your job that any of us could apply to our daily lives?
My job has taught me that we’re all more alike than we are different. Our stories connect us through our shared experiences and make it easier for us to empathize and communicate with each other. I think we’d have a lot less conflicts if we all took a moment to pause and find common ground.