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Personal Histories

personal historian

Jo Sanders  - Personal Historian

Personal histories are
bridges to the past
and legacies for the future.

   "People's stories are so fascinating
— they are always unique."

   From "August Third" by May Sarton

If you taught me one thing,
It was never to fail life.

  Read the entire poem
Express your Love with a Personal History
What is a personal history?
Why engage a professional personal historian?
Who benefits?

Commissioning the History of Another Person
Why commission a history for someone else?

The Personal History Process
Level one: the interviews
Level two: the transcript
Level three: writing the narrative
Level four: producing a book
Historical archives
How long does the process take?

Variations on the Theme
What are the options?

About Jo Sanders, Personal Historian
Who is Jo Sanders?
How does she achieve my "voice"?

What Do Past Clients Say?

Excerpt from the Personal History of Sylvia Messer, Age 85

Excerpt from the Personal History of Paul Raymond, Age 72



Express Your Love with a Personal History

What is a personal history?

A personal history is a bridge to the past and a legacy for the future.

Family stories are among our most precious possessions. How many are lost forever when we don't record them? A professionally created personal history provides a way to preserve the stories and illustrate a life. It's a wonderful way to be remembered and inspire the next generations.

Why engage a professional personal historian?

Many people find the prospect of writing their own personal history daunting. They're not sure which aspects of their lives to include and which to exclude. They can't achieve the right balance between too much detail and not enough, or between factual and emotional. They have difficulty with the writing process. They have trouble organizing the material into a coherent narrative. It's just too much work, and all too soon time can run out.

With the right listener, however, storytelling comes naturally to everyone. A professional personal historian knows the questions to ask that elicit memories full of life and color. Telling your story to someone who hasn't shared your past means that everything must be explained, which creates a full record. If you choose a book format for your personal history, an experienced writer knows how to use your words to create a smooth narrative. Perhaps most important, with an empathetic and perceptive personal historian the process is a pleasure, not a chore.

Who benefits?

An additional and usually unexpected benefit arises from the privileged opportunity to consider your entire past in a detailed retrospective. New understandings and viewpoints emerge that enrich your life and add even more to the lessons you have learned.

Express your love with a personal history. Original interview voice recordings, a verbatim transcript, or a meticulously produced book of memoirs is an heirloom that will be cherished for generations.

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Commissioning the History of Another Person

Why commission a history for someone else?

Many people do not realize the fascination their stories hold for others. For some, this is due to modesty. For others, it arises from the feeling that what is so familiar to them cannot be interesting to others. For still others, it comes from an apprehension that talking about oneself will be seen as selfish.

But we want to know about the people we cherish — what the world was like when they were young, a world we can never know. What happened to them across the years, and how it shaped the people they became. What they learned from it all, and what they can teach us.

The gift of a personal history of a parent, a grandparent, a mentor, or a friend is a way for you to express the honor in which you hold them. It is a gift of love.

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The Personal History Process

The process is entirely customized to your wishes and circumstances. Choices involve interviews, a transcript, writing, and book production.

Level One: The Interviews

An interview session lasts two hours and takes place in a quiet place in your home or elsewhere. In comfortable, relaxed conversations, I use a digital voice recorder to ask questions about your life that elicit your memories and stories. The choice of events to include and the level of detail are up to you. You may also choose to have additional interviews conducted with other people.

You can choose to do only one or two interview sessions or as many as it takes for a full life history. You receive the original CDs at the conclusion of the interviews.

The number of interviews required for a full history is quite variable, depending on the narrator's talking speed, level of detail, recall ability, number of events narrated, amount of thinking time, and many other factors. As a result, a full history can take as few as one or two interviews or more than twenty.

Level Two: The Transcript

If you choose to have a verbatim paper transcript of the interviews in addition to the voice recordings, the recordings are transcribed as the interview sessions proceed. At the conclusion of the interviews you receive all transcripts in a handsome binder as well as the voice recordings in CDs.

Level Three: Writing the Narrative

A transcript is a word-by-word written record of the interviews. As such, it reflects how people actually speak — the colorful metaphors, the stories and verbal quirks, but also "Oh, I forgot to tell you last time " and "Um, let me see "

If you choose to have the personal history shaped from a raw transcript into a polished narrative, I work with the transcript through several drafts while preserving your distinctive voice. Final decisions about what to include and exclude belong exclusively to you. You receive CDs of the voice recordings and the narrative in a handsome binder.

Level Four: Producing a Book

If you choose to give the personal history a permanent form, you can make it into a book. Decisions in this phase involve whether or not to include photographs or other visual materials, which ones to include, book layout and design, the paper, the cover, and binding. For example, the book cover can be made of heavy paper, leatherette, cloth, or tooled leather. The book can come in a dust jacket, a slipcase, a clamshell box, or without any coverings.

Your book is privately printed for you to distribute to family, friends, and colleagues.

In addition to or instead of book publication, the book can be produced electronically on a CD or a website.

At the conclusion of the project you receive CDs of the voice recordings and the published book. All original visual materials are returned.

Historical Archives

If your book contains material that is historically significant and with your consent, I research appropriate historical archives for you, including the Library of Congress, and make arrangements so that future historians may have access to it.

How Long Does the Process Take?

Depending on the choices you make about interviews, transcripts, writing the narrative, and publication, the project can take from a few days to more than a year.

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Variations on the Theme

What are the options?

Personal histories can take many forms because they are completely customized. Among the possibilities are these:

  • Mini-memoir to full history
  • Family history — couple, siblings, parents and children, grandchildren
  • Meeting, courting, and marrying history
  • Pregnancy and birth or adoption history
  • Childhood history (annual interviews)
  • Milestone history —birthday, graduation, anniversary, or retirement
  • Family compilations —cookbooks, poetry, etc.
  • Periodic history of family and/or friends (newsletter)
  • Memoir retreat for individuals and families
  • Instant history at weddings and other events (interviews of participants)
  • History of an organization or business

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About Jo Sanders, Personal Historian

Jo SandersWho is Jo Sanders?

Since 2003 I have produced or am producing personal histories for many clients: Katie Alleson, Bob Borish, the extended Donnelly family, Dave Eldridge, Alfred Frank, Jerry Hanauer, Floyd Udell Jones, Roger Jones, Larry Kahn, Mike Malone, Sylvia Messer, Bob Prince, Paul Raymond, Xu Runhui, Sam Tanaguchi, Margaret Wheeler, and Gene Wooley.

I have three decades of experience with interviewing, writing, and publishing in a variety of settings. My skills were developed as an educational researcher and program developer. For many years I directed national and statewide projects on women, girls, and education. These projects always involved interviews. I learned to ask questions that would make people comfortable talking to me, and questions that provoke new understanding. Just as important, I learned to listen carefully and stay quiet. I have often been told that I have an unusual ability truly to hear people: not only what they say, but what they mean.

I have written ten books and dozens of chapters and articles in a style that is easy to read, accessible, and enjoyable.

Over the years I have often worked with graphic designers and printers in connection with the production of books, brochures, and other print material. I am well versed in the requirements and the process of producing beautiful materials in print.

How does she achieve my "voice"?

A unique writing challenge for a personal historian is to write in the voice — the style, the tone, the vocabulary — of the narrator, not my own voice. This is where the transcribed voice recordings are essential. You will notice that the two personal history excerpts included on this website, those of Sylvia Messer and Paul Raymond, "sound" very different, as well they should. People who know their narrators have said that as they read the words, they can almost hear their family member or friend talking. That is precisely the aim.

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What do Past Clients Say?

"These interviews are playing a significant role in my life, and I have no intention of terminating them."
— Jerry Hanauer

"Thank you for taking this on. You really care about our family and the story that Uncle Ed is sharing."
— Terri Olson Miller

"A long but pleasant journey. My life is much richer for the experience and I know myself better than before. You and the graphic designer produced a beautiful book in time for my 80th birthday, with the pictures even better than they were originally."
— Floyd Udell Jones

"I was so fascinated [with Floyd Jones' book] that I stayed up nearly all night before finally putting it down. Before I started reading I was preparing what I would say to you about its being boring, but it is so interesting!"
— Scott Williams

"Thanks for conducting a very thoughtful and thorough interview with my Dad."
— Sara Malone

"You did a terrific job of guiding me through the process. I had no idea I would enjoy it and get as much out of it as I did."
— Paul Raymond

"Jo, thank you for your professional help. I needed it. My loving daughter asked me to write my story five years ago. I managed 20 pages in that time. Lisa then solicited your help. You accomplished our goals in a few meetings. You gave leading questions and before I knew it, I was flooded with vivid memories of years past to the present day. You are a great listener. What a blessing and relief. We love you, Jo, you made my life easy. Thank you!"
— Katie Alleson

"I appreciate your encouragement and sincere sympathy to me. Thank you forever. You have become an important friend in my old age. I'll forever remember and cherish the time when we were together."
— Xu Runhui

"We found Jo's services invaluable in pulling together the threads of our brief but intense organizational history, and weaving from them a coherent pattern that served as a framework for developing strategic plans and future visions. Along the way, we found our employees also gained respect for the organization and each other, as I never knew that!' was heard over and over."
— Pete Saflund

"Ms. Sanders has an irrepressible spirit, an infectious warmth, and a drive that reflects a passion for humanity and fairness. Her publications are as well written and pragmatic as they are prolific, her approach direct, and produced in multiple media to fit the needs of multiple audiences. Her fine mind, high energy level, and indomitable will are a powerful and effective combination."
— Patricia B. Campbell

"Ms. Sanders' skills in writing and communication with others are outstanding. She is intelligent, listens well, and is an extremely hard worker who always delivers what she promises, a rare quality in many professionals these days."
— Elizabeth Fennema

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Excerpt from the Personal History of
Sylvia Messer, Age 85

Life on "Sausage Avenue"

When I was four we moved to West Philadelphia, to a row house on Osage Avenue. The house cost 4,400 — the amount stays in my head. It was an "open mortgage" — we never paid off the principal, just paid the interest. When I was 23 and moved away, my mother lost the house. I guess this was legal.

At home we didn't have much furniture because my father didn't believe in buying anything unless he could pay for it. He didn't have much money. My father had a store on 44th Street. It was a wholesale notions business, selling bindings and elastic and such. He made a living, though. We lived on Osage Avenue for two years before we got living room or dining room furniture.

In back of the house on Osage Avenue there were little back yards. They were as wide as the house, maybe ten or twelve feet, and the so-called gardens extended out maybe fifteen feet to the alley, which separated the Osage Avenue houses from those facing the next street. The garbage was collected in back of the house in the alley, but the trash was collected at the curb out front. Down this alley the hucksters would trudge every day with a basket on their shoulder, calling out their wares. Bananas were twenty-five cents a hand. Five apples were ten cents, cantaloupes three for a dime, and even ice was sold. Fruit was every day. You got so used to it you didn't hear it.

Most people did not have electric refrigeration, but iceboxes. You had to buy ice to keep stuff cold. Everyone had a square sign made out of cardboard, and on each side it had a number, 10 or 15 or 20, indicating the price of the piece of ice you wanted. It wasn't pounds, but size somehow. Nothing was weighed. The truck would park at the end of the alley, and the man would start walking, hollering "Ice man, ice!" That was every day. We used to have a pan for the melting icewater to drip down into. In our house, it always ran over.

Like everyone else, we had a coal bin. There was a high window near the cellar for the purpose of putting a chute in there to deliver coal. One side of the coal bin was for pea coal, and the other side was for nut coal. They always washed down the coal to keep down the dust. The window was in between the bins. I was told that when I was little I constantly had a black rim around my mouth. It seems I liked to pick up pieces of coal and put them in my mouth.

Ashes had to be carried out every week. If, God forbid, Mischief Night before Halloween was the night before ashes were collected, the whole neighborhood was worried sick that the kids would just knock over baskets of ashes. Of course, we didn't buy the baskets or the containers we used for the ashes. We got them free from the fruit stores. In those days everything was unpackaged, so we got the bushel baskets in which fruit was delivered to the stores — big slatted baskets. We used the baskets for ashes and for trash. Nobody bought trash containers.

No one had a telephone. The closest phone was in a candy store. You left the house, turned right, walked to 58th Street, turned left, and the first little street was Addison Street. Across 58th Street was the candy store. Kids hung around — big kids, not little kids, waiting for the telephone to ring. The owner of the store would call a kid over and tell him, "Go get so-and-so at this address. Tell them they're wanted on the phone." He would race over to our house and he'd get a dime, so it was a big deal.

When I was four, I wanted to go to the candy store. I don't see how it's possible for a four-year-old to be permitted to go on her own to a candy store, but that's what I remember. Coming back, I lost my way. I started to cry, and a woman stopped and asked me where I lived. "Sausage Avenue," I said. That was the way my parents pronounced it! So the lady took me back to Sausage Avenue.

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Excerpt from the Personal History of
Paul Raymond, Age 72

Pork Chop Hill in Korea

As well trained as you are, nothing prepares you directly for combat. The movie "Private Ryan" begins with probably the best episode on film of what combat is really like. The guys who survived did so because of their good training — otherwise they wouldn't have made it at all. That's what those guys in the film were doing — adhering to their training.

I was in combat in Korea, and for years I really suppressed all that. There was no way I could talk about any part of it.

I was in a bunker on the forward observation post at Pork Chop Hill, out in front of our lines, not behind them. You have to hide yourself as best you can. The object is to get the best view of the enemy lines that you can, which is very important in the kind of stationary war that we were fighting — it wasn't Patton's war, moving tanks around. I was out there with a guy from a town named Tennessee Colony in Texas that I had served with in basic training. His name was Jim, and Jim was black. I had tremendous admiration for him. He had gone through Texas Southern College, a black college in Texas. He had taken all his extra money and sent it back home so the younger kids could go to college too. He was one of the finest guys I've ever known. We were fortunate to be together because basic training companies tend to be scattered all over, but Jim and I were still together.

The Chinese began an assault, and that was terrifying in every way because they started out with their trumpets blaring, making a huge noise, and then they started charging up the hill. They came at you in such large numbers that all at once you're conscious of the fact that, "Hey, we've only got a squad up here, there must be ten thousand of them coming at us." That was pretty terrifying all by itself. But here we were on the forward observation post out in front of our lines. We were connected by telephone back to artillery, and in fact that's why we had the forward observation post — for the artillery. As we were sitting right in the middle of the assault, they were going to get to us first.

I called back our coordinates to artillery, and told them exactly where we were and they fired on us. I didn't have much choice about it. I either had to give them our exact coordinates or be overrun and killed by bayonet. The artillery might not have collapsed our bunker, because they're built to survive artillery fire and they often did. However, this time the artillery collapsed our bunker completely. I'm sure they got a lot of Chinese too, but they certainly got us.

Pork Chop Hill was reduced by about sixty feet because of the artillery fire, just blowing off the top constantly. Sometimes we would have the hill and sometimes the Chinese would have it. Everyone was firing artillery fire. As it turned out, the Chinese didn't succeed. They came in large numbers and died in large numbers, but they didn't take the top of the hill.

When our bunker collapsed, Jim was trapped and I was thoroughly trapped. I was under heavy timbers and sandbags and I couldn't move. Jim was right on top of me. He had taken shrapnel. We were able to talk briefly. Jim was bleeding severely and he died on top of me.

I just couldn't believe what happened. On our last leave home I flew to Kansas, but Jim had to get home as cheaply as he could so he rode the bus. Here he was riding the bus in the uniform of the United States Army and he had to go to the back door of bus station restaurants to get a brown bag lunch. Even before Jim died I was angry about that. But when Jim died I said to myself, "This is not the America that I'm willing to fight for, and die for, and that Jim died for." I was lucky to be alive and I dedicated my life to making sure that that would end. I've struggled with it ever since.

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Jo Sanders, 300 pesos per hour.  An interview (two hours) includes on-site visit and creation of one CD.  Writing includes all drafts and corrections.  For a fully written book, estimate 10 hours of additional work for every hour of interview time.

Transcript of each interview session (two hours), 1,000 pesos. Necessary if written version is desired.

Other services e.g. book design (including photo scanning, photo enhancement if required, layout, cover design), printing, binding, electronic services by separate agreement, although I will supervise the work.  I am happy to identify designers and printers for you.

Estimating total costs for an average project (five two-hour interviews)

Level 1:  CDs of interviews, 3,000 pesos

Level 2, transcripts of interviews, 5,000 pesos

Level 3, written narrative, 35,000 pesos

Level 4, printed book, 45,000 pesos and up (depending on word length; number, quality and color or black and white photos; binding selected; and number of copies)

Personal History at a distance.  It is possible to conduct personal history interviews at a distance, for example in the United States, via Skype on the computer.  Please contact me for details.

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Contact Jo Sanders, Personal Historian,  to preserve your personal history.

Jo Sanders

© | Photo by George Shagawat