Tips, guidelines and principles: How to write a personal history your posterity can't put down

Published: Friday, Oct. 9 2015 7:30 p.m. MDT

Elder W. Craig Zwick and his wife, Jan. Elder Zwick is a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. (LDS Church) Elder W. Craig Zwick and his wife, Jan. Elder Zwick is a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. (LDS Church)

The year was 1967. Young Elder W. Craig Zwick was serving in the Argentina North Mission when his mission president, future Apostle Richard G. Scott, assigned four missionaries to open the work in Southern Bolivia. They traveled north by bus, train and horse to the San Juan de Oro Valley, where they helped establish The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the sleeping little villages of Quiriza, Chacopampa and Chifloca, Bolivia.

One of their daunting assignments was to secure a site and build a meetinghouse. Elder Zwick, who came to the mission field with experience in construction, said he drew up the chapel’s blue prints on 8.5-by-11 sheets of paper while riding a bus from Córdoba, Argentina, to the Bolivia border. A prominent site in Quiriza was obtained with the help of some of the community members, and they moved ahead with the overwhelming project. The missionaries actually used rented burros to haul materials, including lumber, cement, steel, window frames and plaster over a 20-mile mountain pass, often in inclement weather. Once the adobe walls were in place, it took all the manpower available, combined with great faith, to hoist and pull a heavy eucalyptus beam into place at the top of the building, using hand woven ropes made from llama hair. When the project was completed, Elder Zwick recorded in his missionary journal that the chapel stood as a sentinel over the valley.

Elder W. Craig Zwick and his wife Jan are the authors of "More to Your Story." (Deseret Book) Elder W. Craig Zwick and his wife Jan are the authors of "More to Your Story." (Deseret Book)

Constructing the first LDS Church-owned meetinghouse in Bolivia was a foundational, testimony-building experience for Elder Zwick, now a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. It’s one of several personal life experiences that he and his wife, Jan, have shared in their book, “More To Your Story: Discover the Powerful Experiences You’re Already Having.” They hope their true stories, written to teach gospel principles, impact their posterity, as well as provide encouragement and insight for others wishing to record their own life experiences.

“Life is filled with these types of teaching and learning moments, and we believe it is impossible to overestimate the influence our own stories can have on us, our children and future generations,” the Zwicks wrote in the book’s introduction. “But if we and those we love are to benefit from these moments, we would be wise to ‘Treasure up … the words of life’ (Doctrine and Covenants 84:85), write them down and frequently recount them — thus making them part of our family lore and heritage.”

In the late 1960s, Elder W. Craig Zwick of the First Quorum of the Seventy, along with other missionaries and community members, built the first LDS Church-owned chapel in Quiriza, Bolivia. This recent photo shows the same LDS meetinghouse in use today. (Photo courtesy of Stephen B. Allen) In the late 1960s, Elder W. Craig Zwick of the First Quorum of the Seventy, along with other missionaries and community members, built the first LDS Church-owned chapel in Quiriza, Bolivia. This recent photo shows the same LDS meetinghouse in use today. (Photo courtesy of Stephen B. Allen)

Elder Zwick, along with Utah author Lee Nelson, recently discussed the key elements of writing a compelling personal history and shared a list of useful tips and guidelines for those who want to record something meaningful for their family.

Simple stories, powerful principles

You need not be a professional writer to tell your stories and learn from them, Elder Zwick said. Simple stories and experiences that are honestly shared can affect others in a variety of positive ways. While many may see their life as uneventful or mundane, Elder Zwick suggests considering a situation, challenge or unique opportunity from your life, then asking three questions:

1. What did I learn?

2. Why was it significant to me?

Lee Nelson has written nearly 20 books in his career as an author. (Cedar Fort) Lee Nelson has written nearly 20 books in his career as an author. (Cedar Fort)

3. Therefore, what?

“There is power in teaching true principles the same way we learned them,” Elder Zwick said. “The purpose of all of us in mortality is to learn through our experiences, whatever they may be. Stories infuse our life with meaning. We are here to learn from our experiences. … For the experience to be meaningful to you, it needs to be verbalized or written. … Until you speak or write about it, it doesn’t have power in your life.”

Once an experience has been identified, don’t get too hung up on details or flowery words, focus on the feelings that were felt, Elder Zwick said.

“The real essence of the experience is what we felt in our heart,” Elder Zwick said. “It is not so much what you write, but the idea is to convey a feeling.”

Lee Nelson is the author of "Hoofbeats." (Cedar Fort) Lee Nelson is the author of "Hoofbeats." (Cedar Fort)


The Savior Jesus Christ taught the people using parables and the scriptures are full of powerful stories.

Elder Scott taught Elder Zwick as a missionary, and continues to teach in general conference, about the importance of recording spiritual promptings and lessons.

“Knowledge carefully recorded is knowledge available in time of need. Spiritually sensitive information should be kept in a sacred place that communicates to the Lord how you treasure it,” Elder Scott said in the 1993 October general conference. “That practice enhances the likelihood of your receiving further light.”

He has also learned from observing LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson.

“President Monson really does have a gift for weaving true accounts into gospel principles,” Elder Zwick said. “He has presented countless messages of wisdom, inspiration and doctrinal insight by giving us enlightening experiences of his own, or people he has met or helped. Those are things people can connect with.”

Ancestral stories

Alma Smith is Elder Zwick’s great-great-great grandfather. As a 7-year-old boy, Smith’s hip was brutally shot away during the Haun’s Mill Massacre in 1838. He was miraculously healed through the mighty faith of his mother, Amanda Barnes Smith.

For Elder Zwick, Smith’s experience is a classic example how family history stories can teach gospel principles and connect families. Elder Zwick encourages parents to share stories with children that illustrate a family member’s character, courage or level of spiritual maturity. A grandmother or mother might share the feelings she had as a first-time mother with her pregnant daughter or granddaughter.

“Alma Smith is a hero to me. … It’s important to know who they (ancestors) were, how they grew and what experiences made them better,” Elder Zwick said. “Our experiences make us who we are, but until we tell about ourselves and share our stories, others may know little about us.”

Elder Zwick also referenced the 2007 October general conference message of President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency.

“Although I was tired, I took out some paper and began to write. … I was supposed to record for my children to read, someday in the future, how I had seen the hand of God blessing our family,” President Eyring said. “I wrote down a few lines every day for years. … Before I would write, I would ponder this question: ‘Have I seen the hand of God reaching out to touch us or our children or our family today?’ As I kept at it, something began to happen. As I would cast my mind over the day, I would see evidence of what God had done for one of us that I had not recognized in my busy moments of the day. As that happened, and it happened often, I realized that trying to remember had allowed God to show me what he has done.”

Sacred experiences

Some stories are too sacred to share, and certain stories are for an individual’s own learning, Elder Zwick said.

People learn different lessons in different ways. The scriptures contain many stories about people who made mistakes, but the purpose is not to beat someone down, it’s to teach a lesson. Those stories are seldom told in the first person. In some cases, such as the LDS Addiction Recovery Program, a person can open up about his or her past personal struggles and teach powerful lessons that will deeply impact lives. In that environment, that works really well, Elder Zwick said.

“No one is perfect. We’ve all had issues along the way that we’re not proud of, but I don’t need to talk about it all because hopefully I learned enough from them. You just get better,” Elder Zwick said. “But occasionally, it’s OK to open your heart a little and share something if you feel it might benefit someone.”

For help on deciding what is appropriate and what isn’t, Elder Zwick pointed out two scriptures in the Book of Mormon.

Alma 37:8 states, “And now, it has hitherto been wisdom in God that these things should be preserved; for behold, they have enlarged the memory of this people, yea, and convinced many of the error of their ways, and brought them to the knowledge of their God unto the salvation of their souls.”

In 3 Nephi 27:23, it reads: “Write the things which ye have seen and heard, save it be those which are forbidden.”

Date activity

In addition to sharing stories with their family, the Zwicks enjoyed writing the book together because it was an activity that strengthened their marriage. Elder Zwick encouraged couples to work together in writing their personal histories because it “bonds and enriches a marriage.”

“There was a synergy that went beyond the value of the lessons taught or learned in the book,” he said. “The book meant something to our kids, but it also meant something to our relationship.”

Another perspective

Lee Nelson has published nearly 20 books, including the “Storm Testament” series. In 2011, Nelson published “Hoofbeats,” his autobiography. In the book’s prologue, Nelson described his experience of being called to teach a personal history writing class in his Mapleton, Utah, LDS ward.

The motivation for writing his own personal history stemmed from a thought that scared him — what if he died without writing his history and one of his sisters attempted to write it?

“Both of the sisters who might attempt such a project are intelligent, college-educated adults. Having known me all my life, either one would be able to produce a beautiful and perhaps lengthy piece of work. And while they were doing it, I would be turning in my grave,” Nelson wrote. “No matter how good and noble the intent might be, they would get it wrong. They could not help but get it wrong. They would not be able to tell my story the way I remember it, nor in the way I would want it told — not even close.”

Continuing his thought, Nelson wrote: “How many departed souls are regretting that they didn’t write something down before it was too late? How frustrated are they that the too-brief stories of their lives, often written by people who didn’t know them, miss the mark by such a great distance?”

As he wrote his own story, his life made more sense.

“I began to see pattern and purpose instead of accidents and dead ends,” Nelson wrote. “As I wrote about regrets and mistakes … I began to see some of these events as wonderful learning opportunities preparing me for future events.”

Writing a personal history is not like writing an algebra textbook, he wrote, it is nothing more, or less, than telling stories of your life. Some are short and funny and some are longer and more serious. Sometimes you explain at the end of a story what you learned, sometimes you don’t, he wrote.

“It’s easier than you think,” Nelson wrote. “I tell my classes that writing a personal history is the easiest kind of writing a person can do, because you have already done the research by living your life. When you start writing, the hardest part is already behind you.”

With a little coaching, anyone can learn to write his or her story, Nelson wrote.

1. Write like you talk. Nelson suggests you write the story as if you were telling it to a neighbor over the backyard fence.

2. Pretend your audience consists of seventh graders. Your writing will be easier to understand if you don’t use big words that few people understand, Nelson said.

3. Keep in mind that different people remember different facts. If a relative doesn’t agree with the way you tell a story, then they should write their own version of the story and leave you alone, Nelson wrote.

4. It is wrong to fictionalize or make stuff up.

“Don’t do it,” Nelson wrote. “There will always be some factual mistakes in writing from memory, but you’d better be honest about what happened, how you felt and what you think you learned.”

5. Once you have composed 50-100 stories, you will have a feel for which ones must stay, which ones might be marginal, and which ones deserve the firing squad. Instead of including everything, good or bad, the personal history writer is selective and only includes the best stories, Nelson wrote.

6. Finally, Nelson shared the key secret to writing a personal history.

“There is no secret,” Nelson wrote, “It’s not hard, but it does take time and attention, usually over several years. It might go faster if I do it for you, but it might be better if you do it yourself. After all, you are the one who did all the research.

“The elements in great stories, the stories that never die, are the same elements we see in our own lives. The great stories parallel the lives of human beings. All of us are reluctant heroes or heroines engaged in life’s journey.”

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