Life Stories Recorded in Different Ways

Angela Zusman, a personal historian, continues with another video to talk us through different ways to record your own life stories, the stories of someone you want to remember, or your family history.  Whatever you’re most comfortable with, you can tell your stories orally, write them down, record them in audio or video, or share them online.

More helpful video tips to come!



Angela Zusman, a personal historian, talks about how telling your life story benefits your health in this second video for Famento.

In recent years, personal life stories or memoirs have become more popular. We find more of them in the bookstores again, including best sellers like Jeannette Wall’s “The Glass Castle.”  There is also a resurgence of memoir writing, or life story writing classes in many continuing education and community colleges.

You’ve probably heard that writing and sharing your life story can be a therapeutic process.  Now you can learn more about the quantifiable and positive health effects of telling your life story.

Video on health benefits of sharing your life story


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Life review: How are you achieving your dreams in 2009?

We only have a few more days of 2008. End of year tends to be a reflective time for many people, as we fill out our professional development reports for work, or come up with our list of new year’s resolutions. I came across Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” video recently, and found it really inspiring and well worth the time to watch the complete video.

A little background on Randy Pausch’s life story: Randy Pausch was a professor at Carnegie Mellon and a virtual reality expert. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and told he had “3-6 months of good health” left. In academia especially, there’s apparently a tradition of giving “The Last Lecture”, an opportunity for a professor to ruminate on his life lessons learned and impart his wisdom. He titled his last lecture “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.”

Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” video and book inspired me to narrow my life review for 2008 to ask the following questions:

– What are my dreams / goals in life?
– What specific actions did I take in 2008 to help me achieve a certain dream? – What did I learn from the success or failure of each of those actions?
– Have my dreams / goals changed based on anything that’s happened this year?
– What specific actions do I need to take in 2009 to get me even closer to achieving my dreams?
– What specific actions do I need to STOP taking in 2009?

If better time management is on your list of things to do in 2009, you may also want to check out this other video from Randy Pausch on that very topic: He has some great tips on time management that we can all use because time is not infinite for any of us.

Let’s make every minute a happy and meaningful one. Happy New Year!


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Your Life Story: Tips on How to Record Them

We’re happy to welcome a guest, Angela Zusman, a professional personal historian, to give some tips on how to record our life stories in a series of videos for Famento.  Angela has years of experience interviewing families, teaching life story classes, and working with individuals to record their life stories.  Angela will be sharing tips with us in a series of videos.  Enjoy!

Tips on How to Record Your Life Stories

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A good friend of mine’s mother just passed away recently.  No matter where I turn, bad news just seem to pile up — economic downturn is still seeking a bottom, some friends are either losing their jobs or else in fear of losing their jobs.  But then, I came across an article today about the talk at the University of Wisconsin that Ishmael Beah gave about his life story.  He lost his entire immediate family in the Sierra Leone civil war (Liberia) in 1991.  He says: 

“We went straight from being children to adults, just to survive….We learned things like running during the day was a better chance of getting shot. We would run at night.” 

It was humbling to learn about his experience — he was made a child soldier at age 12.

Now what was it I was so worried about?  I love reading about other people’s life stories for this reason — it gives you an opportunity to learn about others, but also reflect on your own life.  Perspective, we all need that once in a while.  Ishmael’s story made me reminded me that in the big scheme of things, and even in my own life, my worries now are just a little blip.  Other people are and have experienced greater issues in their lives, and things turn out ok. 

I’m really looking forward to reading Ishmael’s book,  “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.” 


Famento is about life stories, not just your own, but also those about your family.  You can learn so much by interviewing your family and hearing their life stories.  It may seem like a daunting thing to do. However, these conversations are very rewarding and easy, if you follow a few simple guidelines: 1) Prepare for the interview, 2) Be flexible during the interview, and 3) Follow up with your subject.

1) Prepare for the Interview

Identify your goal. First, you should decide what you want to learn from your interviews. Having a goal helps focus you and the person you are interviewing.

If you are interested in family history, I have a few specific recommendations. I suggest you start with interviewing the eldest extended family member. She or he has the longest memory of your family. For some families, interviewing the eldest relative first is also a sign of respect. If your family is hesitant about having these interviews, start with the most influential person in your family. Getting this person’s participation and support can pave the way with the rest of the family.

Do your research. Try to learn as much as you can about your relative before the interview. You can ask your parents or other family members for information about this relative. It is also important to know about the historical context of your relative’s life. The internet is a good place to start. This way, if your relative starts talking about life during the Great Depression, you won’t spend your time relearning basic history.

Create a list of questions. Try to create a list of the most important questions that you have. Also make sure you write down detailed background information such as names, date of birth, place of birth, and names of other relatives. This information is helpful in putting together a family tree and pedigree chart. Finally, note to yourself the most important questions you have, in case you start to run out of time during the interview.

Bring pictures or other objects. Bringing some photos of your relative or family is a very good way to generate more conversation. Many people are initially reluctant to talk about themselves, and having a few objects to help the conversation can make them feel more comfortable.

Bring all necessary equipment. Technology has made it possible to record your interviews a number of different ways. I recommend bringing a camera and a tape recorder. Some relatives are not comfortable with being recorded, but having a record of the interview will help you immeasurably afterwards. If you own a video recorder, this can be an extremely useful tool for your research. Being able to see and hear your relatives tell their own stories is also very powerful.

Let your relative get prepared. Make sure your relative is ready to talk with you. As always, it is important to be sincere and honest about your goal, and why you want to do it. Let your relative know what you plan to do with your findings and notes. Ask for explicit permission if you are planning to share these with anyone else.

Sometimes it is helpful to give a list of the general questions in advance. This can help to reduce unwelcome surprises or anxiety about an interview. I also recommend doing the interview at the relative’s home, when he or she is alone and away from distractions. Being at home also makes it easier to retrieve helpful photos or documents.

2) Conduct the interview

Make the interviewer comfortable. In my experience, I’ve found that interviews are best kept at one to two hours so that neither of you get tired. Interviews can be emotionally and physically demanding. Also, try to be considerate. A small gift to show that you took the time to learn something about your relative will show that you are sincere and genuinely interested in your relative’s life story. Whether it is his or her favorite food, a basket of fruits or a cup of coffee, do not overlook this small gesture of appreciation. Remember, you may need to set up multiple interviews to get all the information you need, and you want your relative’s experience to be a positive one.

Start with factual questions. It is best not to launch into the tough questions immediately. Let your relative get comfortable by first verifying his or her background information and other simple questions. When asking about dates of events, try to relate the timing to his or her life. This helps make the interview more personal, even if the subject is another family member.

Be an attentive listener. Be a patient and attentive listener. Don’t strictly adhere to your list of questions. Your relative’s stories and memories may lead to surprising findings. Sometimes tangents lead to the best stories. Of course, you will need to balance this with the goals of your interview.

Be ready with memory aides. Use other supporting photos or documents as a way to elicit more memories. Often we often remember more details when given the right context or input.

3) Follow Up After the Interview

Transcribe the interview. Do this on the day of the interview if possible, while your memory is fresh. If you were not able to record the interview on tape or video, you will need to fill in your notes with your own memory. Try to write your thoughts down before you forget.

Organize your notes. If your project will involve multiple interviews with different family members, it’s important to organize your notes. Try to keep your notes in a central location and remember to back them up. This way it will be easier to go back and check your findings. It also makes it easier later to share your research with other family members.

Think about your next research step. After a long interview, you may find that you have more questions than you started with! Note down new questions that you have. Also write down information that other family members might be able to answer.

Call or send a thank you note. Send a card to show your appreciation for your relative’s time. You may also want to include your interview notes so that she can review for any corrections or to provide additional information.

Get to know your family and their life stories. Help create these permanent records of your family’s most precious memories so that they will never be forgotten.

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Veterans Day Salute

Today is a day that we give deserved recognition to the great soldiers who have served and protected our country.  I’m drawn to hearing the real accounts from our veterans because this is how I feel I can truly understand what they sacrificed and endured. 

When veterans like Mr. Vernon Harper, 94, of Lufkin, TX talk about his war experience and life stories, my eyes are glued to the paper.  It’s hard to miss the pain in his voice and words as he recounted arriving in Germany the day after D-Day started:

“They had wiped out almost the entire first wave…It was awful, awful, awful when we landed. It’s not too nice to talk about….When we got there the Germans were right there. (The Americans) were slaughtered.” (source: Lufkin Daily News article)

As emotional as it was for him to share these stories, Mr. Harper did it so that the rest of us can understand.  I salute him for doing this, and hope that other veterans also share their stories with those around them.

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