“The Kid Kit: All you need to interview your grandparents” from Dawn Roode

I’ve found a partial solution to how to blog while experiencing a COVID-19 pandemic-related form of writers’ block: I’m sharing resources offered by friends/colleagues who are finding their own ways to help “ordinary” people cope in such an extraordinary time.

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred Dawn Roode of Modern Heirloom Books to create several free and low-cost resources, available through her website. “People are valuing the connection more, when we’re disconnected from the world. Hopefully that will be a lasting impact from this experience.”

Particularly useful in these pandemic days might be The Kid Kit: All you need to interview your grandparentsa downloadable PDF booklet that Dawn created with the help of her 10-year-old. Designed for kids 8 years old and up, it offers activity suggestions ranging from cooking with grandparents to a photo scavenger hunt. “There’s something for every mood, from light to deep,” said Dawn. Conversations between generations might be just what’s needed to create some silver linings in these days of shelter-in-place and home-schooling.

Dawn, during an interview

Dawn was a lifestyle magazine editor for twenty+ years before discovering personal history work. She was inspired to explore saving family stories when her mother passed away unexpectedly. Dawn’s son was just three months old. “Being a storyteller was what I turned to, to help me cope,” Dawn said. “I wrote about my memories of her, going through photos, and over time, I made a book in her honor.”

Dawn realized how healing that process was. Friends expressed interest, and soon she began using her professional skill set in a new way. “My ideas evolved from primarily doing tribute books about people who had passed away to helping people to capture their stories before it was too late,” she said. “I was able to make it a much more personal process.”

Now, through her business Modern Heirloom Books, she produces coffee-table books that set her apart from competitors through a strong visual approach. “They’re meant to be opened to any page, rather than a chronological telling of someone’s life,” said Dawn.

An example of a Modern Heirloom book

Interior of a Modern Heirloom book

Dawn frequently uses photographs to prompt her clients to tell stories. “It creates a living heirloom, something that becomes a tool for continued storytelling among the family,” she said. “Once those first few stories are told, often the storyteller is surprised how much they have to say, and by how well received those stories are. Curiosity is sparked. People want to hear even more. That gives me great joy.”

Find these free resources on Dawn’s website:

The Kid Kit – Everything You Need to Interview Your Grandparents

56 Essential Questions to Ask Your Parents to Capture Their Personal History

More Free Resources, including additional lists of interview questions, memoir writing prompts, and one of Dawn’s favorites, How to Use Photographs as Prompts for Writing Life Stories, can be found in this toolkit on Dawn’s website.


© 2020 Sarah White and Dawn Roode


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Loss and Love in the Time of Covid

This essay by my MFA colleague Esmeralda Cabal is republished with permission from Understorey Magazine, where it recently appeared. Understorey provides an accessible and aesthetically beautiful venue that illuminates the life experiences f writers and artists in Canada who identify as women or non-binary. 


Evenings of board games and laughter, intellectual discussions over dinner, days of drifting from reading to knitting to cooking elaborate meals and baking beautiful bread. Walks in the woods with my dog, the odd bike ride with my husband. Gardening in the sun. I had unrealistic expectations, perhaps, but this is what I dared imagine life in self-isolation might be, the four of us all together for the first time in years.

There have been elaborate meals—nettle risotto, roast leg of lamb, slow-roasted vegetables, homemade pasta. The bread has indeed been beautiful, thanks to the plethora of no-knead recipes out there now, and I’ve also made hot cross buns and nut loaves and cookies and yogurt. But discussions over dinner have often disintegrated into nit-picking and arguments, conflict over the Netflix account, and whose turn it is to walk the dog. Ah, the children are both home. Except they are no longer children.

I get it, life changed practically overnight for them, but also for us. The global pandemic caused us all to come to a pause and rethink our future in two-week blocks at a time.

Our daughter, at twenty-one, was in her last month of classes at university, about to graduate. The world was full of possibility. She had a few leads on jobs, a budding romance, and was looking forward to crossing the stage in cap and gown to collect her well-earned degree.

Our son, at twenty-five, was working and living with his girlfriend at a resort in the Rockies. It had been a cold winter and he was looking forward to spring skiing. They mapped out future adventures and dreamed dreams, their world full of possibility too.

And then, the new coronavirus we’d vaguely heard about became more prominent. It was proving to be more virulent than expected, more deadly than anticipated. The world reacted. We became familiar with terms like physical distancing, self-isolation, quarantine. Stores closed and we lined up for groceries, stocked up on hand sanitizer, Lysol wipes and toilet paper. The shortage of flour and yeast would come later.

There was the email from the president of the university—in-person classes were cancelled, graduation postponed indefinitely. Our daughter would finish her term, and write her exams, online. She and her friends lost their part-time jobs and, unable to pay rent, many returned home to different parts of Canada and the world. They didn’t have a chance to say good-bye in person. Some of them will likely never see each other again.

The budding romance came to an abrupt halt, the boy returning home to Ontario for the foreseeable future, our daughter staying in Vancouver with us. Now they talk and do crosswords and even workouts, all on Facetime. Love in the time of Covid.

The resort in the Rockies closed and staff were laid off. Our son’s girlfriend headed east, on a flight back to Ontario, to spend time with her parents. He drove west, to Vancouver, piled his stuff in our garage, and reclaimed his old bedroom. Their plans for another year or two of the wanderer lifestyle up in the air. Now they too are together but apart, connecting on Facetime. How to plan when he is here and she is there and everything, absolutely everything, is uncertain? Love in the time of Covid.

For my husband and me, life hasn’t changed that much. We are newly retired and had already learned to slow down and spend days together. We walk the dog, go on the odd bike ride, garden when the sun shines. Sometimes it feels like we will run out of things to talk about. Yesterday, we danced in the kitchen. Love in the time of Covid.

I love that our family is together again. And yet, I know it is not the adult children’s first choice. We are lucky and we know it—we are healthy, we eat well, and we have a comfortable home near the woods that makes self-isolation bearable, even pleasant. But we are getting cranky. It’s raining today and we are all inside. Whose turn is it to walk the dog?

© 2020 Esmeralda Cabral

Esmeralda Cabral was born in the Azores, Portugal and now lives, writes and cooks in Vancouver, Canada. She writes creative nonfiction and is a recent graduate of the MFA program in Creative Nonfiction at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is currently writing her first book length manuscript – a memoir about returning to her home country with her Canadian-born family and her Portuguese water dog. Her work has been published in various anthologies, the Globe and Mail, and aired on CBC Radio. 


What is the story of your resilient moment? How are you facing this challenge and coming through?

See submission guidelines here–then send me your true RESILIENT story well told. Or hey, just a link to any resource that helps you refill and recharge.

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By Sarah White


You know how a phrase will barge its way into your life and become part of your permanent collection, of inside jokes? It was like that with the cobblestones.

In 1991 I was accepted into a Group Study Exchange program offered by Rotary International. With a Rotarian leader, I and five other “outstanding young professionals” would be sent to a Rotary club district, to spend five weeks visiting Rotary clubs. This year the exchange was with a district in central Italy. In each town we would have what they called ”vocational exchange opportunities” and present a slide show about our home district of Wisconsin.

On our team consisted of four women and one man. For our leader the Wisconsin Rotary district had chosen Bruce, a man of such distinctly odd character that I have spent nearly 30 years trying to describe him. Picture Humpty Dumpty crossed with Hoss Cartwright.

Bruce looked like a big hardboiled egg. Bruce sounded like a TV left on in the background. He smelled of suits that should have been dry-cleaned sooner. At 53 years old, there was a childlike helplessness to him that might have been endearing if he hadn’t been the authority figure of our group. In a word, he made us nervous.

Bruce had been a child prodigy (so he told us) but said little about his adult achievements. Born to wealth and married well, he’d been taken care of every day and in every way. As a result, he met the world with an excess of buoyant good humor.

That was Bruce. Who were the rest of us? Just five people in our early to mid 30s, chosen for our better-than-average knack for making a good first impression. We quickly bonded over the dilemma of how to get through five weeks led by Bruce.

We arrived in Rome in late April and spent three days being guided about by the first of many Rotarian hosts. Each day we walked miles with our guide pointing out the layers of history all around. Once back at our hotel, the guide would leave us and we would make forays to local restaurants for dinner.

By the third night, Bruce was limping badly.

“What’s wrong?” we asked.

“I bought new shoes just before the trip,” he said. We looked down—where we had been walking Rome’s streets in athletic shoes, he wore men’s leather lace-ups. Bruce reported that his feet were a mass of blisters.

“But don’t worry,” he added brightly. “I’ll be alright as soon as I get off these cobblestones.”

We were on Day 3 of a 35-day trip. We would not be off the cobblestones anytime soon. We whispered to each other about what kind of pampered son-of-a-bitch sets out on a month-long trip with his shoes not broken in.

The next day we boarded the Rotarians’ rented motor coach and headed north into Tuscany where our duties would begin. We would spend the next month touring factories and museums and ruins, followed by four-hour meals where we would quickly learn to make small talk in Italian with our tablemates. Bruce would remain preternaturally good-natured as the rest of us frayed into petty squabbles under the pressure to keep up the good first impressions.

When my husband came to meet me at the end of the Rotary tour, I told him about Bruce and the new shoes. “I’ll be alright as soon as I get off these cobblestones” entered our marital in-joke repertoire.


Everything eventually comes to an end, be it cobblestones or a bed of roses. I find that comforting, especially in these pandemic times.

We will be alright, as soon as we get off these cobblestones.

© 2020 Sarah White

What is the story of your resilient moment? How are you facing this challenge and coming through?

See submission guidelines here–then send me your true RESILIENT story well told. Or hey, just a link to any resource that helps you refill and recharge.

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“Extraordinary Times: Coronavirus Journal” from Sam Uhl

I’ve found a partial solution to how to blog while experiencing a COVID19 pandemic-related form of writers’ block: I’m sharing resources offered by friends/colleagues who are finding their own ways to help “ordinary” people cope in such an extraordinary time.

Sam Uhl of The Cheerful World is a personal historian and custom publisher I met through the Association of Personal Historians. Her recent newsletter brought us back in contact. I invited her to share news of her free new offering, a downloadable collection of writing prompts titled Extraordinary Times: Coronavirus Journal.

“From birth, I was destined for a path of listening to and preserving stories,” Sam describes herself on her website, going on to tell about parents and family elders who introduced her to the power of elder’s stories, and how she now partners with people–as Mike Oke and I do–to bring their stories into the world in published books and more. Sam is located in Hendersonville, North Carolina, but as we’re all learning–through the power of virtual collaboration, personal historians can work with anyone, anywhere.

I asked Sam to chat with me about why and how she created her journaling aid. My opening question: When the pandemic bullied its way into our lives, how did you respond in your business?

Sam: “It showed up, and much to my surprise–business did not slow down. People wanted a way to write.” Sam and her husband are active in their tourist/retiree-heavy little mountain town. “When this hit, I got trickles of emails and calls saying ‘I just miss stopping by your studio and chatting. I don’t have a way of expressing how I feel about this whole Corona-virus thing.’ Most of them are at least story-tellers if not writers.” She decided to put together a tool to help them express themselves. “Through a variety of prompts, they can be thinking about something besides the virus, the politics, the jobs lost,” she explained. “This is a historic moment. People will point back to this moment like we look at the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.”

Sam, who is trained in the Guided Autobiography method of writing short reminiscences stimulated by questions, started creating her list of prompts. “People can choose what they want to address on any given day.” She came up with 100 prompts, which should get us through the shut-down. If people write on a few of them, Sam will feel she has helped. “I need to not feel hobbled by this pandemic. I want to be an active participant in helping people feel better.” She hopes we will all record our thoughts and experiences in this strange time–“including all of the wonderful things that are happening”–and reframe the experience in our own thoughts and conversations toward something more positive.

Sam envisions our journals finding their way to community collections, at libraries and historical societies. She wouldn’t mind if it caused a few people who are writing and discovering they have something to say to reach out for her writing coaching services. “But really, I created the journal just to help–I haven’t thought too far beyond that.”

To download a free copy of Sam Uhl’s writing prompts, simply click Extraordinary Times: Coronavirus Journal.  Thanks, Sam, for helping us all find our way forward!


What is the story of your resilient moment? How are you facing this challenge and coming through?

See submission guidelines here–then send me your true RESILIENT story well told. Or hey, just a link to any resource that helps you refill and recharge.

  • Sarah White


Posted in Call for action, Writing prompt | 2 Comments

“Write your Family Story” online course with Mike Oke–free! (for now)

I’ve found a partial solution to how to blog while experiencing a COVID19 pandemic-related form of writers’ block: I’m sharing resources offered by friends/colleagues who are finding their own ways to help “ordinary” people cope in such an extraordinary time.

Mike Oke (rhymes with bloke) is a Briton who started Bound Biographies in 1991. We met in 2006 as fellow members in the Association of Personal Historians. We keep in touch.

He recently let me know about his new online course, Write Your Family Story.” In response to the current pandemic lock-in, he has reduced the price (ordinarily $199) to FREE. I checked it out–it’s just like having a chat with Mike in his office.

Check out the course here!

This is what the course looks like: Screenshot from Mike Oke’s online course, “Write Your Family Story”

Mike has developed an effective methodology he shares with his clients as he coaches them to write their autobiographies. He published an interesting guide-cum-anthology with examples drawn from his clients’ stories, Write Your Life Story, (4th edition published in 2010). It’s a fun read, since all the references are “teddibly British.”

Recently, Mike adapted that methodology to an online course format. He chunked it into 22 short lectures–about 10 to 15 minutes each. Every lecture ends with tips to get you going on applying what you’ve learned. Helping him was his friend and client, audio engineer Imran Ahmad.

Imran encouraged Mike to adapt his coaching process to the online course format. Since Mike had already written a book, he had a sense of how he would organize the course. He includes in the online course a downloadable resource based on the book.

“I’m happy to offer it for free,” Mike told me, “because good things will develop through it. I suppose it’s our small tribute to the people living alone and finding these times a real struggle. If this can help them through, then that’s fantastic.”

Mike and I hope you’ll take a look!


What is the story of your resilient moment? How are you facing this challenge and coming through?

See submission guidelines here–then send me your true RESILIENT story well told. Or hey, just a link to any resource that helps you refill and recharge.

  • Sarah White
Posted in Call for action, writing workshop | 2 Comments

COVID-19 Musings, April 15 edition (or: How to Blog through Writers’ Block)

On this morning, April 15, 2020, I sit looking out at an unnaturally quiet street, feeling like a stranger in a strange land.

How, in this new place, will I use True Stories Well Told? How will I blog while not feeling particularly wise or witty about anything? There’s nothing in my mind that’s fit to print. I haven’t found the time to reach out to some of you for guest posts. I will, but for now, I’m gathering links to articles that feel helpful to me. Call it my ‘COVID Resilience Collection.’

I’m continuing to journal almost every day. Just a few jottings but I’m hopeful, like a traveler, that what I’m capturing will bring back greater recall–and deeper understanding–when this trip has shifted from present to past tense.

Today’s link is an article in the Canadian magazine Maclean’s by Ayelet Tsabari. Ayelet is a mentor with the U-King’s-Halifax MFA-Creative Nonfiction program. She joined the program in my second year and I had the opportunity to attend a few classes she taught. I was charmed. She has a poet’s heart. Her memoir The Art of Leaving (link to review) won the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Memoir. She knows a thing or two about resilience.

What the Gulf War taught me about coronavirus

What the Gulf War taught me about coronavirus

“The futility of planning.” Yes, that puts a pin in it–what I’ve been feeling for the last month.

Just one example: After my mom realized she absolutely had to use oxygen all the time, she was virtually a prisoner in her room because she couldn’t manage without assistance the transition from room oxygenator to portable tanks. I spent a week on phone calls and websites trying to find the best deal on a portable oxygen concentrator that would give her more independence. (Turns out that’s a whole shady  underbelly to the medical equipment supply industry.) The day her concentrator arrived, her assisted living facility went on full shut-down–residents not allowed out of their rooms. The futility of planning.

“Life in crisis doesn’t leave time for pondering,” wrote Ayelet. I won’t ponder, but I will try to capture what I’m living through. “…the only way to cope with the uncertainty is to accept it, to root ourselves firmly in the present, to live small…I hold on to the now like my life depends on it.” Thanks Ayelet, me too.


What is the story of your resilient moment? How are you facing this challenge and coming through?

See submission guidelines here–then send me your true RESILIENT story well told. Or hey, just a link to any resource that helps you refill and recharge.

  • Sarah White
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Finding our Resilience in this Spring of COVID19

Our memories are too important to let a global pandemic get in the way of preserving and sharing them.

I find I’m not doing a lot of reminiscence writing these days–just a little journaling, trying to capture the weird day-to-day of this COVID19 thing, one day focusing on sounds, another on sights, and so on. I want to remember how neighbors suddenly exchanged cheery greetings, the thwack of staple guns from the construction site down the street (are those workers safe?)… The sight of near-empty streets, the blue tape Xs on the floors of the retail stores I still enter (pharmacy, grocery). The smell of Spring, humidity returning to my Wisconsin landscape as April unfolds.

How will I use this blog during this strange time? Please help me.

Let’s mine our memories for stories of resilience. Queen Elizabeth showed us the way when she spoke about her first radio broadcast as a young princess in 1940, reassuring children who were being evacuated from London to the countryside for their safety. She called on a memory of past resilience and used it to encourage us all.


What is the story of your resilient moment, when you faced a challenge and came through?

Maybe it was a lesson learned from mentors and teachers, the “Yoda” who expanded your skills and understanding in ways so profound it was like handing you a light saber. Maybe it was something you learned on your own, the Hero on your Journey crossing the threshold, meeting the challenge, grasping the boon and bringing it back to your people. Maybe it’s not your story but that of an ancestor whose example inspires you.

See submission guidelines here–then send me your true RESILIENT story well told. Let’s help each other through.

  • Sarah White


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