Your Life is a Story

What will you pass on to your loved ones?
Your Life is a StoryValues, not valuables, are the true wealth you pass on to loved ones.

By Andrea Gross

It’s a familiar scenario. The family has gathered for a big celebration – perhaps a birthday, a holiday or a summer vacation. Dinner is finished; the family is sitting near the fire in the living room. Grandma starts to tell a story.

“When I was a child,” she begins, “we lived up North, and the snow would get so deep we couldn’t see out the windows. My father had to build a fire, but . . .”

{mosimage}“Careful,” says Uncle Jack, as 3-year-old Jason toddles over to pet the cat.

The cat hisses, Jason cries, and Grandma never finishes her story.

That’s how it goes all too often. The family gets together, the older folks start reminiscing. Then something happens – the soup boils over, the dog gets loose, the kids get tired. The stories don’t get told. And that’s a shame, because if there’s one thing that baby boomers and their parents agree upon, it’s this: The real family legacy is the family stories, not the family silver.

Now, as their parents get older, it’s panic time for boomers. They left home for college and often settled far from the communities in which they grew up. They weren’t around for rocking-chair conversations with their grandparents, and now they’re so busy raising their own families and building careers that they don’t have time for long, probing talks with their parents. The parents’ stories are being lost – one generation at a time.

For most families, the problem isn’t a matter of having the will, it’s a matter of finding the way. Diana Bennett of San Francisco is typical of many senior citizens. She knew her children wanted her stories, and she wanted to tell them. So she enrolled in a writing workshop and enthusiastically began writing about growing up in Waterbury, Conn. After 10 months, she had a big stack of paper but precious little readable prose.

“I don’t know . . . This is nothing that would hold the interest of my granddaughter, or even my daughter,” she said dejectedly.
Modesty aside, Bennett probably is right. While people want their family stories, they don’t have the patience to plow through lengthy tomes of rambling prose. If people want their stories to be read, they must be sure that they’re well-written and attractively presented. Otherwise the stories simply will be shoved in a drawer.

A 2005 study by Harris Interactive says that baby boomers, by a factor of 10 to 1, consider their real legacy to be the “non-financial leave-behinds” – the personal stories that reveal not only the family history, but also the family ethics, morality and values.

Virginia Carlson, a 55-year-old from Wisconsin, was determined to get her mother’s stories down on paper, but as a single mother with a full-time job and two children, she had no time to sit down and conduct a formal interview. So she did what so many folks do: She gave her mother a book with a list of questions: “Who was your first-grade teacher? What was your favorite song in high school?”

Her mother returned the book. “This is like being back in college,” she snapped.

“And anyway, I’m tone deaf. I didn’t have a favorite song in high school!”

Parents may agree to recounting their past for their children, but their goal, in all likelihood, is different. The boomers want stories; the seniors want attention. The older generation want to see a smile when they tell of teenage exploits, to hear words of admiration when they talk of overcoming obstacles and, most of all, to know that someone thinks their life is important enough to take time to hear it. Asking them to fill out a book is an insult.

Bennett and McCullough both ended up hiring a personal historian – Bennett for help with her own story, McCullough to get her mother’s story. According to the 2005 Farmer’s Almanac, more and more people are hiring professionals to document their loved ones’ life stories. In other words, whereas once only the rich and famous hired ghostwriters, today overworked, overstressed baby boomers and their parents do it all the time. Ghostwriting has gone mainstream.

I fell into the personal-history business almost by accident. As a longtime journalist, I made my living interviewing people and crafting their stories, but I’d never interviewed my own parents. Finally, with urging from my youngest son, I determined to do so.   

What a difference it made with my mother! Her depression lifted; she became happier and easier to be with. My husband was amazed (and delighted). He did some research and learned that my mother’s reaction wasn’t unusual. Studies from major universities – such as the Universities of Texas, Washington and Massachusetts – and the federal government show that for some elderly people, writing memoirs is better than medicine. Reminiscence often alleviates age-related depression, boosts the immune system, reduces symptoms of asthma and arthritis, provides protection against heart disease, and even extends longevity.

We found this to be tremendously exciting. My husband and I finished the book for my parents – transcribing the tapes, organizing them into a compelling story, getting my parents’ feedback, revising where requested, and consulting with a professional proofreader, who eradicated the tiny mistakes that, like termites, have a way of embedding themselves into even the most carefully prepared manuscripts.

Finally we began the final phase, production. We selected a host of photographs and worked with a graphic designer to integrate them into the text and create an attractive page layout. We then designed two covers – one for an heirloom-quality handcrafted leather volume, one for a less-expensive, soft-cover book that would be distributed to family and friends.

As soon as the books were printed and bound, we threw a “publication party.” My parents, who are in their late 80s, were surrounded by siblings, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and friends they’d known since kindergarten. My father, who is not known for emotion, kept rifling through the pages and had to wipe the tears from his eyes. I was convinced that writing this book was the most worthwhile thing I’d ever done – save, possibly, giving them their first grandchild.

Flush with success, my husband and I decided to start our own business, Legacy Prose. Now, with the help of a team of wonderful and creative folks, we write books that are read by few but treasured for generations. It beats what I was doing before, when I wrote stories that were read by millions but then soon discarded.

Having prepared a book for my parents and now for numerous strangers, if I could do it again, I would have someone else interview my parents. I’ll never know, of course, what they would have revealed had they talked to someone other than me, but I suspect their stories would have been more complete. Although I had the advantage of being a trained and polished interviewer, I was, nonetheless, their daughter. They spoke to me in familial shorthand, omitting details because they correctly assumed a degree of previous knowledge and understanding. But those details are exactly what future readers will need to fully appreciate their story.

In addition, I’ve found that people often are more comfortable talking to an outsider because they know that secrets inadvertently revealed will remain just that – secrets. As a professional, I always guarantee confidentiality and make sure the storyteller is the first to see and edit the manuscript, regardless of who has commissioned the memoir.

In writing the book, again the outsider has an advantage. Because he or she comes to the project without preconceived ideas, an outsider is able to see the themes that run throughout the storyteller’s life and weave them into the narrative. Despite my best efforts, I saw my parents through the lens of my childhood and may have missed insights that would have been obvious to others.
Creating a full-bodied life story takes time – lots of time – and hiring a professional can be expensive. Depending on the complexity of the project and the experience and expertise of the ghostwriter, a memoir can run from several thousand dollars to $50,000 or more.

Is it worth it? Ask a 75-year-old woman from Kansas City, Mo., who said, “You can’t imagine what it’s like for someone like me, an ordinary person, to see my face on the cover of a book. It’s awesome!”

Ask a 60-year-old man who read the words of his mother. “Now I understand her – and me – so much better,” he said.
Or ask a 9-year-old boy who read the story of his great-grandfather’s emigration to the United States. “I’m proud,” he said. “That’s all. I’m proud to be me.”

Andrea Gross, co-owner of Legacy Prose (, is a personal historian who works with clients throughout the United States. She can be reached at or at (866) 394-9339. For 10 years, Gross was a contributing editor of Ladies’ Home Journal and has written articles for Time magazine, The Washington Post and other publications. She is the author of four published books and numerous privately printed memoirs.

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