True Story: I’m A Personal Historian

This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things.  This is the story of Rachael her her career writing people’s life stories.

Rachael’s grandpa + Rachael

Tell us a bit about yourself! 
I grew up in Redondo Beach, a small-ish beach community in Southern California. I was a pretty quiet kid and as a result became a good observer. At first that translated into acting, but it wasn’t long before writing became more appealing. I was a journalist before I became a personal historian. I’m also 32, have been married for 11 years, live in Long Beach, California, and like reading, knitting, jumping on trampolines, random acts of kindness, playing with my dogs, and laughing with my husband.
What does a personal historian do? And how did you come to do this as your career?
Most people have never heard of my profession, so I usually say I help people save their life stories or that I’m part ghostwriter, part historian (ghostorian?).
Basically, I interview people to get their stories, then transcribe and edit their words into a narrative. Once that’s done, I collect photos from the person’s life, layout the book, and send it to a printer to be printed. I can also provide an audio version of the interviews. Of course, those aren’t the only two mediums that personal historians use. There’s also video and digital media as well.
My business’ origin goes all the way back to 1951, when my grandfather was serving as a medic in the Korean War. While there, he wrote long letters to my grandmother, eventually turning those letters into a memoir. Because he took the time to document his experiences, I was able to get to know him as a peer in the same stretch of life. I was surprised to find out how much we had in common, and how similar our writing voices were. This changed my perception of him, and my family in general.
His memoir also made me realize that our personal stories, family histories and traditions are an important part of the legacy we leave behind. They’re the inheritance that families most want to receive, but so often don’t. I started my business, Life Stories Today, out of a desire to help more families preserve their stories.In the last four years, I’ve created life story books that have captured people’s family stories, family recipes, war experiences, travel adventures, love stories, pregnancy journeys and full life histories.

 

Can you share some snippets of your favorite stories?
A 92-year-old woman was describing what it was like growing up on a farm, which included knowing how to butcher a pig. I’ll always remember this because I wasn’t expecting her to go into so much detail.
“It wasn’t an easy job. First, the pig was hit over the head with an ax and left to bleed out. Next, they would cut through the tendons on the back of the feet and insert an iron rod to spread the legs apart. The pig would be hung by a chain over a tripod or the limb of a tree to drain and cool. Then they cut the belly open, the organs and entrails were removed, and the stomach was thoroughly cleaned of all contents.”
I interviewed a WWII war veteran about his time in the front lines. All of his stories were really interesting, but two of my favorites were about the funny things that can happen during war.
“One night, a cow fell hind legs first into my foxhole. If he had fallen any differently, he would have killed me—luckily, he didn’t. That cow made noises all night. I couldn’t wait to move on out the next day.”
Another time, the sergeant told my buddy, Porfilio, to go check out a little fire in the distance. It was at night. Porfilio slowly crawled to the fire. About halfway there, a German soldier decided he had to pee. He began walking toward Porfilio, so Porfilio turned over on his back and pretended to be dead.”
The German came over and peed all over Porfilio. Porfilio didn’t breathe, didn’t move, even though this guy was peeing all over his face. Later, Porfilio said, ‘I thought he’d never quit.’”
A woman who hired me to document her pregnancy had just finished describing how much natural childbirth hurt, when she said, “Despite all the pain, I would do it again. It’s like getting a college degree; no one can take it from you.” That one statement re-framed the way I saw natural childbirth. Now I see it as an accomplishment.
Tell us about the logistics of your job!
I get my clients through word of mouth, giving talks, my website, and listing my information on the Association of Personal Historian’s website.
Most of the information in people’s stories comes straight from them, though I sometimes do research to add more historical context. I use Scrivener, Word and Dropbox to organize my projects, and print my books through a local printer or a print-on-demand printer like Blurb, Lulu or Shutterfly.
I charge by the project; if it’s an open-ended ongoing project then I charge by the hour. I calculate the project rate by estimating the number of hours a story will take and multiplying that by my hourly rate. From start to finish, my projects can take anywhere from two months to a year. It just depends on the length of the story.
Has this job affected the way you feel about family or aging? Has it changed the sorts of books that you read?
I ask my family a lot more questions now. I appreciate how much we have in common in a way never did before, and love hearing new family stories. I was also inspired to track down relatives my family lost contact with, and discovered I had some second and third cousins living just 20 miles away.
Being a personal historian has affected the way I feel about age, not aging. My job has taught me that people of all ages have great stories. To me, stories are the great equalizer. They make us all ageless.
I’ve always liked biographies and memoirs, but now I read them more often.
What are the biggest benefits of your job? The challenges?
I love what I do. Not only do I get to listen to people’s stories for a living, I also benefit from the storyteller’s life experience and wisdom. Moreover, my job makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.
When you’re in a small but growing field, you’re not only selling your services, you’re educating people about your career. Since people usually don’t have a point of reference when you tell them you’re a personal historian, they have no idea what you do or what you charge. This can make it more challenging to find clients when you’re first starting out (and sometimes even when you’re more experienced).
What’s one thing you’ve learned from your job that any of us could apply to our daily lives?
My job has taught me that we’re all more alike than we are different. Our stories connect us through our shared experiences and make it easier for us to empathize and communicate with each other. I think we’d have a lot less conflicts if we all took a moment to pause and find common ground.
Thanks so much for sharing, Rachael!  Do you guys know your grandparents’ stories? Would you ever help them write a life history?P.S. Working on a cruise ship and life as a roadie

25 Comments

Kathleen Shannon

I really enjoyed reading this one! I'm curious Rachael, if you see patterns amongst the kinds of people who hire you? I'm also curious if you've ever said no or have been disturbed by stories and how you include those?

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Rachael Rifkin

The most common pattern I see is in people who are reluctant to begin because they don't think they're interesting enough to warrant a memoir (usually one of their kids hires me to do their story). Once they get started, they get really into it and sometimes even tell me stories that they've never told their kids.

So far, I haven't been hired by anyone with disturbing stories. There was one woman who was in the early stages of dementia, and would occasionally tell me a completely false story in the same manner that she told a true story. When it came time for her sons to review her memoir, they sorted out the truth from the fiction and it was fine, but I was kind of disturbed that I hadn't been able to tell when she was lying.

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Lisa

That must be such an interesting job!

My Grandad has written three books about his life, including his time in the army. He had no writing experience, he used to be a car mechanic, it was just something he wanted to do. My Dad edited them and got them professionally printed. Everyone in the family has a copy, and some have been donated to the local library. It's great to have a record of his life.

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Rachael Rifkin

That's awesome, Lisa! Not only did he give your family a wonderful gift, he also set a precedence for the rest of your family. Now you can nudge other family members to write their histories by reminding them that your grandfather did it, and he didn't even have writing experience. ;-p

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Rachael Rifkin

If your parents or grandparents' siblings are still alive, you could ask them to tell you their memories of your grandparents–what they were like, stories they told, etc. It's not the same as getting the stories straight from the source, but it's still something.

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Manisha

I have always thought about looking into my parent's immigration history. I immigrated with them but I was a baby. This would be a great way to record their (our) experience for all the grandkids. I really enjoyed this interview!

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Rachael Rifkin

That would make a great story! It might be fun to include the grandkids in the process. Have them ask their grandparents about their immigration history (you could provide them with a list of questions, if you're worried about them getting tongue-tied), and you record the audio/video.

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Amanda

What an amazing job! I've been working on family history for about seven years, and it's been completely life-altering. It's amazing to see yourself in people you come from, but who died before you were born. We've tried to be intentional about capturing stories from aging relatives, but one thing I've learned is life is unpredictable, so not to wait until you're 80 to reminisce!

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Rachael Rifkin

Okay, now I want to hear more about your family history journey! I can really relate to your realizations, everything from seeing yourself in other people to learning that it's important to tell your stories now, no matter how old you are.

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Jeneric Generation

This interview was so fascinating! What a fun job (although, I am sure quite challenging). Rachael, may I ask how you got your start in this career? I have a degree in history, and I am a writer, and would love to record my own family history one day. My great-grandfather wrote a book about his life, including his family's move from Germany to the U.S. It is so priceless. Thank you for this interview, Sarah and Rachael!

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Rachael Rifkin

I'm glad you liked the interview! 🙂

In terms of actually doing the work, it helped to have a background in journalism. As a historian and writer, you have the perfect background for this career. When it came to starting the actual business, it's a lot like doing freelance work, except you're also constantly explaining what you do.

If you want more information, PM me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/lifestoriestoday) and I'll be happy to answer all your questions.

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Carrie Morley

OMG – this is my new dream job and I just found out it existed! Thanks for sharing, Sarah and Rachael! And Rachael…if you ever need an assistant… 😉

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Rachelia G

Wow, this was fascinating! I have a degree in history and would love to use it for something so creative and interesting. It's almost like you are crafting a mini-museum of each person's life!

My grandmother took a memoir writing class and has been working on hers for about 2-3 years now, but they are a bit all over the place. I do intend to help her sort through them, clean them up a bit, and pair them with photos. These personal histories are so important, both to families and our understanding of the past in general!

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Rachael Rifkin

Ooh, I like that description–crafting a mini-museum of each person's life. It sounds poetic that way.

Most personal historians start out by doing a memoir of a family member. Maybe you're already on your way to working in this field!

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ashlie

This left me breathless. I now know exactly what I want to do when I grow up. It also explains to me why I keep blogging- to record and remember. Thank you for a great interview!

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Christy@SweetandSavoring

What a fascinating career! I have a feeling I would love this job: I love listening to people's stories, I love hearing different people's accents, perspectives, just seeing the personality emerge as they get more comfortable. It sounds so intriguing. Thanks so much for this interview, Rachael and Sarah!

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Rachel Kelley

This is fantastic, I didn't know it was a thing! I am an archaeologist and working on gathering all my family histories into a collection for my future children. I am also working on getting a local history museum going, and will be interviewing lots of elderly locals, but don't really know what I'm doing! This sounds like something I would really love to do on the side! Can you offer any tips or directions for getting started?

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