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Personal historians preserve our own stories

Courtney Mitchell (right), co-founder of Voices in Time, interviews Rosemary Soli (left). (Photo by Bridgit Bowden/Hale Center for Journalism) Courtney Mitchell (right), co-founder of Voices in Time, interviews Rosemary Soli (left). (Photo by Bridgit Bowden/Hale Center for Journalism)
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3 minute read

Some people’s lives are chronicled by professional writers in their biographies. Some people write their own memoirs. And then, some people hire The Story Scribe.

 This Kansas City memoir writing business, founded by Amy Butler, is part of the personal history industry. The Association of Personal Historians, the industry’s professional organization, has more than 600 members in 11 countries worldwide.

 According to the Association of Personal Historians, the organization’s mission is to record, preserve and share the life stories of people, families, communities and organizations around the world.

 And that’s exactly what Butler does. She preserves stories by making them into books. Here’s how the process works: Butler sits down for several interviews with her clients. She listens to their life stories. Then, she writes a book based on what they told her.

 The books are often framed around major events in people’s lives like first days of school, weddings, births and deaths. Sometimes Butler includes copies of photos, recipe cards, war medals or anything else that can be scanned. It’s really the stuff of people’s lives.

 Through the interview process, Butler becomes so familiar with the stories that she is able to write all the books in first person, as if her clients were the ones narrating. Each book goes through several drafts, and the clients edit and approve each stage.

 The final product is more than just a scrapbook, and it’s not all rosy. Often, the books chronicle the good and the bad parts of people’s lives.

 “I try to get them to focus on the complete stories,” Butler said. “They’re really talking about all the tragedies, the hardships, the joys, the funny things in their life and it’s such a gift to give to the future generations.”

 Butler says some clients worry that hiring someone to write a book about their lives is a little self-indulgent. She says that exactly the opposite is true.

 “A big hurdle is getting people out of that mindset of that it’s somehow egotistical to do a project like this because it’s not, it’s a gift,” she said. “It’s a gift that you’re giving to your kids and your grandkids and your friends.”

 Many of The Story Scribe’s clients hire her to write about their aging relatives or friends. That’s exactly what Marci Bluestone did. After she found The Story Scribe through a Google search, she hired Butler to write a book about her mother-in-law and father-in-law as a surprise 50th birthday present to her husband.

 Her father-in-law passed away about a year after the project was finished. She says she’s happy that they didn’t miss the opportunity to record his story.

 “We are so happy to have these recorded memories of the parts of his life that he found important and special,” she said. This memoir will always be treasured by my husband and also by his two sisters and all the grandchildren.”

Like reading a book, with your imagination

The Story Scribe isn’t the only personal historian in Kansas City. In fact, there are several. Courtney Mitchell’s company,Voices in Time, was inspired by the NPR program Storycorps. Instead of telling people’s stories through the written word, she records her clients’ voices and edits the interviews into audio files.

 She says unlike a video recording, listening to an audio clip is something we can fit into in our day-to-day lives.

 “Sadly, we just don’t take the time to sit down and watch a video of grandma or grandpa,” she said. Our lives are too busy these days, which doesn’t mean the stories aren’t important to us, it just means we don’t take the time to just exclusively sit down and watch them.”

 She says that listening to the recordings is “kind of like reading a book with your imagination while you’re hearing the story.”

 “On the receiving end, you can listen to your father, grandfather or whoever telling their story, and it engages your imagination and so you can picture them and imagine them at 6 years old and what he must have looked like,” she said.

 Both Mitchell and Butler are members of the Association of Personal Historians and list their businesses in its directory.

 Butler says being able to listen to and then record people’s stories as a career is incredibly rewarding.

 “I know that this is not about me at all, but the joy that I derive from it is just incredible,” she said. “And that’s throughout the whole process, because I realize what a gift it is for people to share their life stories with me as we’re sitting down face to face.”


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