When people contact me about publishing their memoir or family history, I always encourage them to do so for a family legacy. I make sure they understand that it’s highly unlikely their story will be published by a large New York publisher and distributed in bookstores around the country—unless they were famous (or infamous). However, every child, grandchild, and future descendant will treasure the family history or life story of their parent, grandparent, or ancestor, and I’m a firm believer that everyone should leave that legacy.
My e-book Preserving Memories: How to Write a Family History explains how individuals and families can tell their stories, but the project can seem overwhelming to many people. I thought a case study of a real client might encourage others to write their own stories as well as provide practical advice on how to do it. This is by no means the only way to write a memoir or family history, and it probably isn’t the best way for you. I hope, however, that it will open your eyes to possibilities. If you think you can’t tell your story because you’re not a writer, you will be inspired by this example of someone who isn’t a writer who wrote and published his life story.
Last fall, I received a phone call from Borge Hansen. He said he was looking for someone to turn ten hours of audiotapes into a book. Borge was born in Denmark, joined the merchant marine at an early age, and traveled around the world as a seaman for five years. He came to the United States and overstayed his visa for five years, went back to Denmark, and returned to the US legally. Borge joined the Army and served nearly 24 years in the military. Along the way he became a United States citizen, a husband, and a father.
Many people have told him, “You should write a book,” but he didn’t take it seriously until his son, Jeff, encouraged him to write about his fascinating life.
Since English is a second language for Borge, he wasn’t comfortable writing his story. However, he loves to talk, so he simply told his story aloud and recorded it on tape. He started at the beginning of his life and continued chronologically up to the present. After he recorded, he and his wife Brigitte listened to the tapes and made notes of things that needed to be added or corrected. When he finished, he had almost ten hours of tape telling the story of his life.
However, he had no idea how to take those audiotapes and turn them into a book. So he went online and looked for someone to help him. I don’t know what keywords Borge and Brigitte searched for, but my Web site appeared in the search results. They contacted some other writers and editors but wanted someone local in San Antonio, Texas, so they continued down the list until they found me.
When Borge called me the first time, he said he had been to my Web site and “printed out and read every page.” He told me about his tapes and said he wanted me to turn them into a book. I suggested he could hire a transcriptionist for a lower fee than my standard hourly rate. I would then edit the Word document created from the transcribed tapes. Borge said he would prefer for me to do everything, so we set an appointment.
When Borge and Brigitte came to my office, we spent a good while discussing their expectations. Borge wanted to tell his story for his family and friends. He was willing to self-publish and didn’t expect to sell books in bookstores or get rich and famous from his book. Borge and Brigitte gave me a check for the deposit along with the tapes and the notes to get started.
We were all excited to begin writing the story.