My young children know my mom as their sweet grandmother with a touch of Alzheimer’s and limited mobility due to a stroke.
They don’t know her as a Holocaust escapee who went on a five-nation odyssey, including being smuggled from occupied France into Spain in a hay wagon when she was just 4 years old.
They will one day, because a writer from my company sat down with her, interviewed her at length, and turned her recollections from those years (still sharp, by the way), along with family photos and documents from the 1940s into a hardcover memoir.
Every family has great stories to tell, but what happens if those stories aren’t preserved?
Scores of family memoirs have now been published, including the life story of a 95-year-old man who saw cars come in, and almost a century later witnessed the rise of the Internet. How can any family create a book that captures family memories without headaches, hassles, or revisiting upsetting family drama?
A workshop I teach is called Preserving Your Family’s Legacy: Creating and Publishing the Family Memoir (Without Driving Your Family Crazy or to Court). Here are some standout points that would benefit every family:
1. You don’t have to cover an entire life. Instead, pick out one very powerful time in a person’s life. Coming to America, wartime experiences, or starting a family business — these are all strong options. As in my mom’s case, there may be a period of years that deserves full attention. That way, you don’t have to get into periods of time involving divorce or other family drama that no one wants to relive.
2. The first draft is often for therapy. Sometimes there is psychological release from writing the story exactly as it happened. But then we need to step back and ask: If the book were published in this manner, would people’s feelings be hurt? Do we really need to bring up the story about Aunt Fannie now that she’s been gone more than 30 years? Once we see the memories on paper, we realize that not all of them need to see the light of day. Be discerning.
3. Documents are just as powerful as photos, as are illustrations. If you still have your parents’ immigration documents — especially if they include photos — those are fabulous illustrations for books. Don’t overlook them!
4. Hire an interviewer. Should you have an outsider (a grad student from a nearby university, let’s say) do the interviewing? Yes. Sometimes it’s easier to open up to a stranger; people often feel less judged. Using a professional interviewer-writer is just easier.
5. Private citizens have rights of privacy. If you think there are any issues that might lead to lawsuits, have your book vetted by a competent lawyer who specializes in such issues (not your brother-in-law who does wills). Then ask yourself some hard questions about motives. Preserving a family legacy is a great thing. Digging up bones is not.
6. Save money. The simplest, least expensive way to get the book done is to use Amazon’s CreateSpace.com print-on-demand option, along with 99Designs.com, to get a beautiful cover done for a small amount of money.
7. Know the truth about copyright. It’s simple to obtain, at www.loc.gov, the website of the Library of Congress. Don’t let someone charge you $200-plus for a service that takes about five minutes and $35.
8. Use the 80 percent solution. There’s no such thing as a perfect book. At some point, rewriting and rewriting doesn’t make the book better. It can lose its original tone and turn to mush. Great art isn’t completed — it’s abandoned, as the saying goes.
9. Remember it’s not just a book. It’s a legacy. This is your chance to pass not just financial resources to succeeding generations but a legacy of values, memory, and family connections. The time to act is now, while loved ones are alive and memories are fresh.
Michael Levin is founder and CEO of Business Ghost Inc.
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