“Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction” by Jack Hart

Sarah’s Big MFA Adventure began with a book order for three texts, to be read before the residency begins August 6th. The first book I tackled was this one:

Storycraft got me really excited about my writing. What higher praise could I give?

It is a practical book filled with examples, written for an audience of journalists who are experienced at producing true stories about real people and events, for publication, usually on tight deadlines. This isn’t writing to find out what you think, or writing to learn a la William Zinsser. This is effectively using the tools of the writing trade to write better, faster.

The book starts with cogent advice on structure that could save you weeks of work repairing bad drafts, and returns to go deeper on structure after a tour of basic components like point of view, voice, scene, character, action, and dialogue.

I particularly appreciated Hart’s parsing of narrative nonfiction into several specific forms: reporting, story narratives, explanatory narratives, and “other.” That last category contains vignettes, tick-tocks, bookend narratives, personal essays that “take an idea for a walk”, and issue essays like Michael Pollan’s New York Times Magazine article “An Animal’s Place” that grew into The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

My favorite line in the book is “give structure its due.” Hart backs that up with a quote from John McPhee, who says outlining is essential to his process. “Going through all that creates the form and the shape of the thing. It also relieves the writer, once you know the structure, to concentrate each day on one thing. You know right where it fits.”

It didn’t hurt that Hart frequently referenced my favorite writing instructor Jon Franklin, author of Writing for Story. If you’ve ever heard me talk about the complication, three developments, and a resolution–that’s Franklin’s infallible advice on structure.

Being written for journalists, the book reports the evolution of this genre from the “New Journalism” of the 1960s-70s pioneered by Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese, and the like. Hart takes a dim view of their emphasis on the subjective perspective. His chapter on ethics points us toward what I’ve heard referred to as “the nonfiction contract” (although Hart doesn’t use that term), a hallmark of today’s creative nonfiction (the term currently in vogue). In that contract with readers, the author’s challenge is to portray the world accurately, without indulging in speculation, compositing of characters, collapsing of time/space, exaggeration, etc. “Develop an ethical habit of mind,” Hart counsels. “When a story idea takes shape, the first questions should measure the idea against its ethical implications… Question everything with the same tough intensity that a district attorney brings to bear on a criminal defendant.”

The fact that the book is written for journalists means it reads a little differently than the many “how to write your memoir” books I’ve collected. Many in this genre offer writing craft tips in the same vein, but Storycraft is to those what a master class is to a weekend workshop. The topic list is the same, but the instruction goes much deeper.

At the same time I was chowing down Storycraft I was drafting a 4000-word sample essay about my MFA project, a company history of Glory Foods drawn from interviews with one of the founding partners. I literally felt my brain expanding as I swallowed chapters whole, then immediately tried to apply what I was learning to what I was writing. Each draft grew stronger under Jack Hart’s specific, practical advice.

Would you benefit from reading this book? That depends on your intentions for your writing. If you have one life story you plan to tell, for an audience of family and friends, there are easier little how-to-write-memoir books I’d point you to. The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith is one of my favorites, (reviewed on Trues Stories Well Told back in 2011).

But if, like me, you want to deepen and clarify what you know, to learn terminology for things you’ve sensed but never been able to put into words,to take your nonfiction writing to a new level, to boy oh boy is this a great guide!


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Sarah’s Big MFA Adventure

“I was born into a writing family,” began my Personal Statement for my application to the University of King’s College School of Journalism Master of Fine Arts-Creative Nonfiction program. I continued:

My freelancing father counseled me on my writing ambitions from early childhood, while my editor mother marked up every letter I mailed home from camp through college. I graduated from Indiana University in 1980 with a Journalism degree and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, my home ever since.

By the age of seven I was envisioning my eventual success as a writer. But I recall believing that “I need to get wise first, and that will take a lot of time, so I should choose another career in the meantime.”

I did, and that was a good decision. But the meantime is over. It’s time to become the writer I was born to be.

It all started when I bought a ticket to England last summer to attend the “Global Reflections on Narrative” conference at Mansfield College, Oxford. “This is going to be life-changing in some way, if I’m open to it,” I thought as I clicked “purchase” on Orbitz that day.

For a couple of years I’ve been growing increasingly intrigued by the idea of pursuing more education in writing creative nonfiction, and yearning for a recognized academic credential. But I never met an MFA program I wanted to be part of. They were all born out of a fiction or poetry program, or they were as obscure as “personal history”, and I needed another obscure affiliation like a hole in the head. (“Transformational Language Arts?” Sounds groovy, but who gets paid for doing that, exactly?) Besides, I needed something low- or no-residency. So many programs required more than I could give while working for my living.

Then I met Dean Jobbs, faculty at University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a fellow attendee at the Oxford conference. He slipped me a little brochure. “We’ve got your book,” it promised. Conversations ensued. I began to flirt with the idea… could I? Should I? The flirting became dating. We had our first sleepover last November in Toronto, when I went to a meet-and-greet for potential students.

“Could I?” became “Would I?” Writing the application letter, culling the portfolio for writing samples, sending away for the transcripts from my extremely checkered academic career… (Want a great memory prompt? Get your college transcripts.), seeking letters of recommendation… the packet was complete and submitted in December 2016.

Now it’s official. I’m in an LTR with my MFA.

And the work has begun! I have books to read, essays to write, before I arrive for residency in Halifax in August.

Stay tuned: next week I’ll review Storycraft by Jack Hart.

Stories from my MFA experience will appear occasionally here on True Stories Well Told. Let’s do this together!

  • Sarah White
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Throwing a Perfect Family Reunion Party

By Aimee Lyons

Planning a family reunion this summer? Here are a few things to keep in mind before the crowd arrives.

Before Aimee shares her tips, let me reminisce… Family reunions can be remarkable moments that bind a family closer through the generations, or lost opportunities. An example of the former–as a personal historian I was once hired to conduct a “performance” oral history interview with the oldest generation of a family. I sat the four brothers, ranging in age from early 70s to later 80s, in a row and recorded a conversation in which I guided them through their earliest memories and stories of their mom and dad. Even the little children came in from the “bouncy house” to see what was going on–and stayed. For over two hours. Everyone was spellbound by those four great storytellers, recounting THEIR family lore. Afterward my client family got the recordings, and the genealogy maven drew content for months of family newsletters from those stories. A family ensured its memories would last as long as its DNA.

On the other hand, there are gatherings where no one prioritizes the stories–and all you get is a photo or two and a memory that will fade. Now I’ll let Aimee take it away. If you are planning a family get-together this summer, please heed her advice!  – Sarah White

Here I am at one of “those” family reunions in 2012 at Winona Lake, Indiana.


Family reunions will last hours after they are scheduled to end.

Your ancestral line probably hasn’t been in such close quarters since your last family bash. This means lots of catching up. Make everyone as comfortable as possible with plenty of seating and access to ice cold beverages. Have at least three gathering spaces in the shade, and place several large trash cans throughout the venue to make cleanup easier at the end of the day.

Pace yourself.

Hosting a family reunion is an art form that requires patience and a certain amount of finesse. You can’t just throw a pile of food and drinks on the table and call it a success. Before guests arrive, fill coolers with ice, bottled waters, and other individual drinks. As aunts, uncles, and cousins begin to find your doorstep, place non-dairy-based appetizers out for grazing. Fire up the grill or place your main meat course on the table once the bulk of your group has arrived. If it’s a large group, you should allow around two hours for everyone to eat their fill before opening up the dessert bar which, ideally, is comprised of brownies, cookies, and other fun fare that won’t succumb to the heat of the sun.

Enjoy the evening.

Now that you’ve spent the last six hours catering to everyone else, it’s time to relax for a while before cleaning up. Light a few citronella candles and throw some wood in the fire pit (learn how to build one in a single day here) if your party is slated to last well after sunset. The bulk of the cleanup can wait until morning.

Tips and tricks

If you have family struggling with addiction recovery, forgo booze and opt for fun summertime beverages, such as fruit tea, lemonade, and flavored water. It can be difficult for your loved one to stay sober when everyone around them thinks it’s time to party like a rock star. If you do offer alcohol, have plenty of non-alcoholic options at the ready and close the bar at least two hours before the party is over to reduce the risk of anyone driving while impaired. If there is an alcohol-related accident after leaving your party, you may be held accountable. And remember, reducing alcohol availability will also help cut down on family conflict.

When picking foods, throw a few vegetarian options on the table for family members with dietary restrictions, and cook the vegetables first to avoid cross-contamination with raw meats. Keep an eye on the weather and remember that appetizers such as chips and salsa will last longer outdoors than a meat and cheese tray.

Have plenty of activities, especially for the younger family members. You don’t have to spend a ton of money to entertain children. Those in the 10-and-under crowd will likely be happy with bubbles, water balloons, and lawn games, many of which you can make yourself. Have a separate cooler full of juice boxes and small bottled waters for the kids. Tweens and teens make an excellent cleanup crew that you can likely bribe for just a few bucks each. Don’t forget to have plenty of popsicles to help your smallest guests cool off.


For the older crowd, remember that there will be lots of reminiscing going on. Be sure to put out photo albums and make a few posters covered in a variety of family photos. A picture can easily be the perfect prompt an uncle needs to tell the funniest story about your mom that you’ve never heard. Also, try leaving a few empty notebooks and pens laying around for people to share a story or a remembrance. And if you want to go the extra mile, have someone walking around during the day taking video to mark the occasion and to document all the family stories that come up. It’s a great way to catalog family history, and there just might be a surprise tale that you’ll come across later when it’s all said and done.

Make sure you have ample paper products available so as to avoid breaking into – and possibly breaking – your fine China. At a minimum, strive for two sets of dinnerware per person. This includes cups, plates, napkins, and cutlery. Don’t forget to restock your supply of toilet paper, paper towels, and tissues before the big day.

Don’t stress when things don’t go exactly your way and don’t be afraid to ask for help before, during, and after the event. At the end of the day, the goal is to make sure that everyone has a belly full of good food, a heart full of love, and the head full of memories to last until next year.

© 2017 Aimee Lions, the “DIY Darlin‘” who loves to craft, paint, build, and spread her creative touch all over her world. She shares her love of DIY and offered this post to True Stories Well Told. Besides DIY she loves spending time with friends and family in Austin, TX.

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Life Isn’t Always Fair

By Diane Hughes

Our 4H club had an annual event called “The Better Grooming Contest.” I won the contest the first year and each of the following years I entered, but I understood this contest was not about what the official language said it was about. If they judged by those standards, a different girl would have won.

Several weeks before the contest, Mom took me shopping. We looked at a number of outfits until we found something that would work for the contest and be my “good “casual summer outfit. I remember how much I loved the color of the pair of pedal pushers, a fairly bright coral color. With it was a white crop top with three diagonally placed squares that formed a zigzag bottom of the shirt that only partially exposed my midrift. Mom wasn’t sure about that much exposure but compared to other fashionable tops, it was modest.

The Saturday before the event, Mom took me to the beauty parlor to make sure my hair was freshly trimmed and shaped. The night before the contest, Mom helped me wash and set my hair in those awful pink rollers that I had to sleep in. Usually I only did that for Sunday but my hair took so long to dry that I needed to sleep in the rollers to get my hair to form some curl as my hair always wanted to be straight. Mom did my nails and she told me to be careful of them the next day at school.

On the actual day of the event, I came straight into the house. Dad knew that even my regular chores were to be taken care of by him since I didn’t want to “smell like the barn” for this special evening. By the time I left to go to Mrs. Jordan’s house, my entire body had been scrubbed, my hair more pouffed with back combing and hair spray, and just a bit of makeup, a pale natural lipstick and light mascara. I looked good and I knew it.

Throughout the evening, as first one girl and then the next was called in to be scrutinized, I sat very carefully, afraid to eat the cookies or drink the punch, as I didn’t want to wrinkle the clothes or mess up my lipstick. When it was my turn, I carefully rose using the way I’d been taught ladies stand up from a seated position. Inside the bedroom used for judging, Mrs. Jordan and two other women took a close look at my hands. They noticed the perfect white of my new tennis shoes and the coral socks that matched my pedal pushers. They had me turn and walk across the room. When it was over, I was so relieved to go back in the other room where now I felt free to have punch and cookies and laugh with my friends.

My friends, Linda and Kathy…they’d had a very different preparation for this event. Kathy’s mom washed and ironed her dress, probably, and perhaps helped her with her hair but they didn’t consider this very important. Kathy looked fine but mostly she looked like she did every other day of the year.

Linda, though, took it very seriously. Weeks before, Mom had taken Linda and me to the Mall so we could buy fabric to make clothes. Linda had been saving her baby-sitting money and wanted our help to learn to sew. I remember Mom helping Linda buy fabric that wouldn’t wrinkle as easily and a color that would go with several of her tops. I don’t remember what I bought but Linda bought a drab olive green heavy cotton and a pattern for a wrap around skirt. She was pretty new to sewing and I tried to help her. Before she cut, I went to her house to make sure she had it laid out properly. The basic pieces went together well but the strip of fabric that formed the wrap-around’s tie required quite a bit of hand sewing. She got it done but not without her mom yelling at her that if she didn’t put that damned thing down and fix dinner she would throw it away. Mrs. Alison was an alcoholic who was always yelling at Linda or her brothers about something. The father was just as bad but at least he usually wasn’t at home. Linda, by the age of ten, did most of the cooking, cleaning, and laundry.

My mom and I talked often when I came home from Linda’s house, confused by what I saw. And I didn’t tell her half of what went on there, like the time Mrs. Alison chased us into the cornfield with a baseball bat. I was terrified but Linda said she wouldn’t ever really hit us with the bat, she just wanted to scare us, but I came from a home where if my parents said they were going to do something, it got done so she scared me!

On the night of the Better Grooming contest, Linda cooked dinner and did the dishes. After that she rushed to shower and fix her hair. Then she put on her first pair of nylons which she had practiced putting on several times, and the only pair of shoes she had which she had polished the night before. When we went to pick her up, she came running out. We barely had time to check out her new skirt. Mom and I told her she looked really nice. In the car as we drove away, we helped her put on just a bit of lipstick which it was understood had to be gone before she went home.

As the evening wore on, Linda became nervous, and when she was called into the other room, I was nervous for her as well. I hoped the comments would be kind. Linda was already pretty chunky and her clothes didn’t fit her well as the plaid shirt was a tad too tight. The skirt had turned out really well considering her lack of experience but it wasn’t perfect and the shoes showed their age.

When she came from the room, she looked down and avoided my gaze. I was furious before I even knew the details. I later learned that they had criticized the top-stitching on the skirt and pointed out that the tight shirt made her look even heavier. She was told she needed to lose weight. They also told her she should wear brown shoes with green. They probably didn’t mean to be mean but I knew that Linda felt terrible even before I knew what they’d said.

I am still ashamed that when I won, I didn’t say the prize shouldn’t have gone to me. If we really were being judged on the effort that went into grooming, the prize should have been Linda’s. Except even then I understood that Linda would have only been more humiliated. When my win was announced, I simply stood up and walked over to collect my blue ribbon. I looked down as they told the details of why, which embarrassed me. They thought it was my shyness and modesty but it was anger and shame. I felt that their explanation was just rubbing salt in Linda’s wounds. I still don’t know what I should have done but it felt entirely wrong to just stand there.

On the way home, Mom asked how it went. She understood something of what I felt when I said I’d won but only because they liked my top. She wisely did not press for details. We dropped Linda at her house and waited until she was safely inside. Mom only then asked what happened. I just started crying. “Its not fair!” “Linda worked really hard to make that skirt and they said it wasn’t stitched good enough.” That was the only detail I’d gotten out of her about her time in the room. Mom didn’t know what to say to comfort me, and just said the good Mom platitudes that she was proud of me for helping Linda and being a good friend. But I was not comforted and felt such a strange sense of guilt and anger, complicit perhaps I might now say in an unfair abuse of power. But my language then was now nuanced enough to find words to say what was wrong. More details came out over the next few weeks and it didn’t help me forgive those old biddies one bit.

For the next several years, I entered the contest feeling much ambivalence. I was mostly making my own clothes by that time and an A-line skirt was a one evening project, so my effort to earn the prize was to tackle something more challenging than anything I’d done before, pretending that that was the reason I won. Each time I went into the bedroom to be judged, I felt torn. I wanted the approval and I wanted to win but I always carried some of Linda’s hurt with me and my old anger. She never again entered and I never told her I won again. We both knew it was a sham but she probably understood why I needed to do it as well as I knew why she couldn’t.

But as my mom told me that night, life isn’t always fair. What she didn’t tell me was that the unfairness is so deep that the Lindas of the world have few options; even heroic efforts rarely allow them to break free of those constraints. That night taught us both that the divide between us was wider than we’d known. When she got pregnant shortly after graduating from high school, her parents made her marry a neighbor boy who wasn’t the father, a boy we all made fun of but who was willing to marry her and raise the child. I cringe whenever I think of her life on that dreary farm down the road with that man in that dilapidated four-square farmhouse, cooking and cleaning and doing laundry for the large family that included her alcoholic father-in-law. She died of ovarian cancer when she was barely fifty. When I heard, my main response was relief that she no longer had to live that miserable life. I hope she found small pleasures in between her chores, that her relationships with her children brought joy to a life that seemed pretty grim.  Life just isn’t fair sometimes, and I wish I didn’t know that.

© 2017 Diane Hughes

Diane Hughes is happily retired, enjoying an intentionally quiet life of art, books, and writing in Madison, Wisconsin.

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“Just One of the Guys”

I wrote this essay during my “Write Your Way to a Better Attitude About Money” last winter, in response to a prompt asking ““Have you ever been harassed or bullied on the job?”

By Sarah White

It didn’t occur to me at the time to view it as harassment, but I think being pressured to watch stag films on the job, draw dirty cartoons, and watch my coworker sunbathe naked counts as a “yes.”

it was the summer of 1979 when I got a gig at National Screenprint and began driving out to Stewart Street to the low barracks-like rows of cement-block buildings that housed mostly auto-body workshops. It was rumored one was actually a production studio for porn films–I don’t know why else such leggy, sparkly women would be coming and going from a dingy place like that, so I imagine it was true.

I was hired to help Jana in the art room. On the production floor, the boys (and most really were boys, only Claude and Mark were closer to 30 than 20) stood at stations around lazy-Susan-like silkscreen machines, wiping ink over screens onto t-shirts and sweatshirts and caps. Jobs were clearly gendered here.

I quickly became proficient at creating the art to make the team logos, band names, and corporate messages our customers ordered. I applied my artistic skill to filling requests for Bucky Badger in every conceivable position from picnicking with Betty Badger to more X-rated behavior.

The job was likeable enough, although Jana annoyed me with her insistence on calling her friends “gals.” Considering myself a staunch feminist,* I preferred to claim I was a “woman” but Jana was pushing 30 and getting a little uncomfortable about that.

The boys on the factory floor stopped work every day for lunch and a break out back of the shop. It must have been summertime because Claude would strip naked and sunbathe. The others took off their shirts but even though he preached nudity like a religious zealot, no one went “Full Monty” but Claude. Jana and I enjoyed the show, fully clothed.

Me circa my screenprinting job

There was a lot of semi-profane joshing among the boys, “just locker room talk” you might say. A dumpster out back had a sign on it that read, “Caution: Load in rear.” For some reason the boys thought that was hilarious; one even bribed me to make a stencil of it so they could print it on some t-shirts. I never did puzzle out what was so funny, but just the way they snickered, you knew it had to be dirty.

Claude may have been the one preaching nudity but it was Harv, the boss of the operation and the only one with an office, who instituted the stag film Fridays. He had a VCR in his office and everyone would pile in to watch—Jana and me too, because who wants to be the girl who’s too prudish to let the boys have their fun. It wasn’t fun–where is the turn-on in grainy pump-and-bump in a dingy office at midday surrounded by your coworkers?

By Christmas, like so many situations that were once kind of cool and fun, this job had just become one petty harassment after another, with all those stag films,  f*cking Buckys, the naked coworker, and all.

Soon enough I found another job and got out of there, only to face another kind of harassment—religious discrimination disguised as teasing. But that’s a story for another time.

© 2017 Sarah White

*In 1979 you could consider yourself a “staunch feminist” and still not be aware that feminists don’t have to be “just one of the guys” when the guys are objectifying women.


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When APH Died, Doves Cried

When the phone rang on Tuesday morning, May 9, I was at my desk, warming up to the day’s work.

The caller was a member of the board of the Association of Personal Historians. I had joined this group in 2002 and served on the board in various roles for more than a decade. I had been president from 2012 to 2015.

She began, “You are one of a handful of people getting calls from the board this morning. Is this a good time to talk?”

I noticed a higher pitch, a shortness of breath, that wasn’t normal for her. “What’s up?”

“You’ll be getting an email this afternoon. It’s going out to all members. God, I’m shaking. Just a minute.”

“Now you’ve got me shaking too,” I said. “What is it?”

I could hear her take a deep gulp of air. Then: “The board of the APH has voted to dissolve the organization.”

The body and mind will disassociate in a moment of shock. Sometimes it feels like floating above the body below. Sometimes it feels like a fog leaching all color from the world. This was like that, and more.

We shared a moment in that limbo where you know something has changed but you don’t know yet how, or who will be affected. Then she went on at a breakneck pace.

After 22 years, financial constraints and membership trends had made dissolution unavoidable. The website would close down soon. Our social media channels were already shuttered. The fall conference would be canceled. Some portion of my registration money would be refunded. All creditors would be treated equally. To compensate members for their lost dues, the marketing and professional development materials APH had created over the years were being moved to a Dropbox—an archive worth much more than our $200 annual dues.

What was due me hadn’t crossed my mind. I was thinking about the people. APH has always and only been about the people—the remarkable collegiality of a group of individuals who care about other people so much they make a profession of helping them preserve and share their life stories.


I looked at the phone in my hand: 18 minutes call duration. She was starting to repeat herself. There was nothing more to say. “Thank you for letting me know. I’m sure this has been difficult. Wow. Take care,” I said, and hung up.

Shaking still, I grabbed the dog’s leash and left the house. How was it possible the sky still arced overhead? How was it possible that leaves were still unfurling so fast you could practically see them grow?

The rest of that Tuesday ticked by as minutes and hours must. At 3pm, the official email appeared in my in-box. “Dissolution of APH, Inc. – PLEASE READ.” Then the reaction began—calls, texts, emails. A former board member set up a Facebook page and began inviting us to it, a space to grieve.

As the next days passed as inexorably as those first minutes and hours, I wobbled between trying to do my work and seeking solace in the company of my fellow members. There are scores of people with whom I’ve worked on a committee, or shared a conference, or passionately argued one side or the other of a proposed course of action. In those first few days, we drew close to each other, and in doing so, we made each other more aware of all that we were losing.

I started out feeling like a friend had died, but the death count quickly expanded. I began to say, “I feel like a plane went down with 600 of my closest friends on it.” I knew that was grandiose, but I wanted more. I wanted to say, “For me, this is bigger than 9-11.” This event, unlike that tragedy, affected everyone I knew and called into question the very meaning of the last 15 years of my life. If I wasn’t part of a movement to raise awareness of the importance of life story work, what was I all about? Who were my people?

In terms of my day-to-day life, the board’s decision hadn’t really changed anything all that much. And yet, it changed everything. Almost every time I’ve traveled in the last 15 years, it has been to an APH conference. I’ve couch-surfed with APH members across the USA and England. Almost every person I call a friend is someone I met through APH. Every professional dilemma I faced, I ran to the APH Listserv to ask my colleagues, “What would you do?” All that, gone. I suddenly felt exposed, like those dreams where you are naked in public.


Then came Friday night with its standing traditions. I knocked off work and had a quick, stiff martini with a friend. My husband and I headed out to a fish fry at a neighborhood pub. The noise of the patrons, the flashing TV screens, were distracting in a way that felt like relief.

But as we waited for our check—what was that song playing on the jukebox? “Raspberry Beret” by Prince? In a sports bar? The bartender explained, “The Revolution is playing at the Barrymore Theatre.” As in, the band that was going to reunite with Prince just over a year ago, if Prince had not died.

We left the bar. “Wait just a minute, “ I said. I ran down the block to the box office: “Are there any tickets left for The Revolution?” Yes. “One, please.” I would have paid anything for it. I’d found where I needed to be, to move my grief forward. We drove home, I traded car for bicycle, and pedaled back to the theater. I took a seat and began adjusting to the wall of Prince sounds thundering from the speakers.


Losing APH was the second business death I’ve experienced. Hearing “Raspberry Beret” in the bar had triggered memories of Karin, the business partner I lost in 1987. She and I had taken over Abraxas Studio in 1984. Both in our mid-20s, we were closer than spouses for three intense years. Karin’s DJ boyfriend kept us supplied with music, and Prince was one of our favorites. When Karin told me she wanted to leave our partnership, doves cried. When I visited her in Minneapolis, she took me to dance at 1st Avenue, Prince’s nightclub.

Ruminating in that amniotic sac of thumping sound, an umbilical cord appeared and connected my two losses separated by 30 years. The band stepped onto the stage. Guitar and piano chords crashed over us and lifted us on that wave.

No one used an inch of seat for the next two hours—not until Wendy Malvoin sat on a stool to play the ballad, “Sometimes It Snows in April,” and we all sat too.

“Tracy died soon after a long fought civil war”…

Like APH. Then the tears came, and I was not the only one crying in that hall, we were all crying, all purging our grief for whatever we’d lost. The last chord of Tracy’s song was still reverberating when Doctor Fink began to intone:

“Dearly beloved / We are gathered here today /
To get through this thing called life”…

As one we grievers rose from our seats, and joined the chorus—

“Are we gonna let the elevator / Bring us down / Oh, no let’s go! / Let’s go crazy / Let’s get nuts!”


The house lights came up. Crowded together, we pushed through the narrow lobby out into our lives. I bicycled home as a moon just past full rose, golden and huge on the horizon. I felt different—connected. As if in the dream I was clothed again. In purple.

There are signs of APH members keeping our community alive, without the umbrella of a formal nonprofit association. People have been tapping me, as a past president, to lead the formation of something. For now I am declining—out of respect for the recently dissolved, and for my own rebirth.

It’s a different world, without the trade association formerly known as APH. But the sky still arcs overhead. People still connect. And the soundtrack still tells the stories.

© 2017 Sarah White


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Looking for an Encore Career? Start a Personal History Business

by Sarah White

Originally published February 3, 2016 on the Association of Personal Historians blog.

Millions of Baby Boomers are reaching traditional retirement age with an unprecedented bonus of relatively vigorous years ahead. In response, many of us are reaching for an “encore career”—a term that has come to mean applying the seasoned skills and experience of older people for social impact. Starting a personal history practice offers an attractive encore career for Boomers in search of flexible, self-directed work that serves a purpose and feeds a passion while creating a bridge from past employment to full retirement.

Combining purpose, passion and a paycheck

A MetLife study from 2011 estimated that roughly 31 million Americans ages 44 to 70 are interested in encore careers. What are we looking for?

  • Income that will help us postpone claiming Social Security
  • Flexible scheduling that allows us to pursue hobbies and manage our responsibilities
  • Opportunity to meet a community need or social challenge

Many will find the encore career they seek through taking a job with a business or nonprofit organization. But according to that MetLife study, nearly half (48%) say they are interested in becoming entrepreneurs. A follow-up survey  found that among those potential encore entrepreneurs, two in three would consider their ventures worthwhile if they earned less than $60,000 a year. Nearly one in five said earning less than $20,000 would meet their definition of worthwhile.

The social impact of personal history work is easy to imagine and research is beginning to back up that instinct. Improved physical and emotional wellbeing of those who participate in sharing memories is one result; increased resilience in children and adolescents who know their family stories is another. The transfer of core values has preserved family wealth and sustained family businesses through succession to the next generation. Reduced isolation and depression among the elderly is perhaps the most easily observed of these impacts. Anyone who wants to improve the experience of older people in their community will find an opportunity to make a difference in a personal history encore career.

The business of personal history 

So what, exactly, do personal historians do? We help our clients record, preserve, and share their stories. These are often the stories of individuals and families, but we also work with community groups, religious organizations, companies, and institutions. The products of our work take many forms—from printed books to video or audio recordings, or increasingly, digital archives that collect a family’s stories, photos, and other precious mementos online.

Unlike genealogists, personal historians frequently research and write about people who are still alive. We step into our clients’ lives for a time, encouraging them to reminisce about events and experiences, and capture observations and lessons to create a legacy for generations to come.

We typically work alone or with two or three partners or employees. Many of us come from backgrounds in counseling, healthcare, journalism, history, or marketing communications. Some of us have been entrepreneurs in our previous careers, but many of us find that starting a business is another of the skills we need to learn, along with the technical specialties required to deliver high-quality products in our chosen media.

Association of Personal Historians to the rescue

Building a personal history practice can take several years, as it takes time to learn the skills and become known in our communities. But that’s part of what makes it a good fit as an encore career. Boomers frequently make this career transition gradually, winding down prior employment while ramping up a personal history practice.

Many intentionally design their businesses to be part time. A 2014 survey by Encore.org found that “encore careerists” on average work about twenty-one hours a week, and anticipate devoting five to fourteen years to their encore careers.  That is consistent with the experience of APH members, many of whom design part-time businesses they intend to run for a decade or more.

Thanks to a vibrant annual conference, online education program, and engaged membership, APH has become the premier community for sharing best practices and specialized knowledge about personal history.*

There has never been a better time to start your encore career as a personal historian. Not only does the tsunami of retiring Baby Boomers create a rapidly growing market of consumers for our services, but APH offers members marketing aids to get their businesses up and running, including a Personal History Marketing Video.


Encores are for everyone

People who are now considering encore careers span the full educational and economic spectrum, the 2014 Encore.org report states. The opportunity to start a personal history business in your life’s next chapter is open to anyone interested in finding satisfying work, self-expression, and a meaningful contribution to society. Diverse populations need their stories preserved and will be likely to choose the services of someone with cultural competency in their particular background.

“I love that I get to be a witness, to watch history come alive as people share their stories!” is a comment typical of personal historians, when asked about their profession. Could this be the encore career for you? Contact me to find out more at sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com.

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*On April 28, 2017 the Board of Directors of the Association of Personal Historians voted to conclude operations. Trends affecting many professional associations, including the ability to network and educate oneself using free and low-cost online platforms, spelled the end of this group, which I had served in numerous volunteer capacities since 2002, including as its president 2012-2015. “APH had served its purpose–to advance the profession of helping individuals, organizations, and communities preserve their stories– many times over,” wrote the Board in its final message to APH members.

Broad recognition of the importance of saving life stories has emerged and is garnering more media attention with every passing month. There is truly no time like the present to start an encore career as a personal historian. But to my great sadness, future “newbies” will no longer find content and community under the welcoming umbrella of APH.

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