Benjamin Franklin advised: "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing."
Most people don't have a problem with the second idea; every life has a story; almost every story is worth telling. But when it comes to writing that story — that's where many people get bogged down, says author and personal historian Dawn Thurston.
What many people do, she says, is compile data. They get down the basic dates, but most of the narrative is "he was born and then he did this, then he did that, then he did this. We call those 'pedigree chart' stories."
That's not a real story, she says. A real story has life and breath, makes you want to read it, helps you come to know the person better.
Thurston teaches people how to do that in classes at Santiago Canyon College in Orange County near her home in California, in classes at BYU Education Week, and in the book she and her husband Morris have written, "Breathe Life Into Your Life Story: How to Write a Story People Will Want to Read" (Signature Books, $22.95).
She will be a featured speaker at a one-day Personal History Conference, "Saving Lives, One Story at a Time," sponsored by the Utah Chapter of the Association of Personal Historians. The workshop will be held at Westminster College on Friday, Oct. 15.
Writing your personal history or that of your ancestors is important to you and to your family, she said in a telephone interview from her California home. "It's something that brings the family together, it helps develop family pride. It helps give you a sense of who you are."
But while no one intends to write a lifeless story, many people do, she says.
In her book and in her classes, Thurston focuses on six techniques that will help you write a more interesting story.
1. Show rather than tell. "This is a key to writing an interesting story. Pick up any book on writing, whether it's on writing a novel or non-fiction, and there's always a chapter on 'show, don't tell,' " she says.
Basically, it's a matter of adding details so readers can visualize what people and places looked like, how people act, etc.
"Instead of writing 'my mother was a beautiful woman,' describe her, how she wore her hair, how she dressed, how people reacted to her when they met her."
The same is true for places, she said. "My parents courted in San Diego during World War II. My children have a mental image of what the city is like today, but then it was a navy town, with soldiers everywhere in the streets. You could hear the sound of clanking street cars. Put in those details."
Another way to add detail is to create scenes and add dialogue. "My students often have a difficult time with this at first, but it's very effective. Any great memoir you read is filled with scenes."
2. Animate the people in your story so they become believable, interesting characters. "A lot of histories are filled with one-dimensional stick figures," says Thurston. "We all have strengths and weaknesses. It's the balance between them that is interesting. A rosy glow is not believable, because no one is perfect. Show the whole person. Be fair; tell reasons for weaknesses. But everyone deals with difficult issues, everyone makes mistakes."
It is not always an easy road to walk, she says. "After all, someone's reputation may be in your hands. But you have to balance your integrity as a writer with the truth."
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