I’ve shifted much of my writing time from blogging about journalism to personal storytelling. So I thought I should blog about personal storytelling and its place in journalism.
My work days are still filled with journalism matters: leading LSU’s student media operations and teaching journalism classes (though didn’t teach a summer class). But I used to spend considerable time on weekends, early mornings and evenings writing on this blog, where I am certainly practicing journalism, usually about journalism. I spent less time, but occasionally considerable time, on two other blogs that are types of journalism, my Hated Yankees blog about baseball and Mimi’s and my 2 Roads Diverged blog about travel.
More and more, I find that personal writing is crowding journalism out of my non-work writing. And it’s not all related to my experience with cancer. Certainly, since my 2014 diagnosis of lymphoma, I have chronicled much of my treatment and observations about cancer on my CaringBridge journal. That, and the treatment itself, have cut into my time spent here.
But another project recently, unrelated to my illness, also took many hours. Steve Waldman called my attention a while back to a new product he’s working on called LifePosts, and I thought it would be a great tool to tell my father’s story. Dad died in 1978 at age 56. He died before his oldest two grandchildren’s second birthdays, so none of his 22 grandchildren has any memory of him. So I spent a few weeks earlier this year developing a timeline of Dad’s life. It was a mix of writing and research, and I enjoyed working on it immensely, stirring up many fond memories of Dad and learning (or relearning) things about him from various family documents.
I’m sure it helps to have my writing and reporting experience, but I think anyone with basic writing skills and lots of family photos and documents would be able to develop similar posts for loved ones, either memorial posts to honor the dead, as I did for Dad, or celebration posts to observe birthdays, anniversaries and other life passages. Lifeposts even offers a pets option (I won’t be doing one for Duffy, but I wouldn’t bet against Mimi doing it).
You can customize your LifePost. If you don’t like the timeline approach, you can just write a story or answer some questions about the life you’re noting. The tools are pretty intuitive to use, but if you need assistance, LifePosts can help.
I blogged several years ago that news organizations or even freelance journalists should consider writing commissioned obituaries as a new form of business. In fact, I suggested that the business should tell stories of the living on occasions such as retirements or milestone birthdays or anniversaries.
I’m not aware of anyone who has built such a business on telling commissioned life stories, so maybe it wasn’t as good an idea as I thought. But if someone ever gives it a try, LifePosts might be a helpful tool.
I’m pleased to see that LifePosts is hoping to partner with news organizations and funeral homes. I would see potential as well for developing a retirement option, too, and a way for corporate human resources departments to partner in telling the stories of retirees and workers celebrating anniversaries.
Of course, telling the story of a whole life can be a daunting task. Right now I’m writing a series of letters to my sons, telling about some stories I wrote in my career or some important issues or events in my life. It’s some of the most meaningful writing I’ve ever done, but it’s written for an audience of three.
I don’t think all personal writing needs to be for close family or friends. In fact, I think journalism has been too reticent to realize the power of personal stories.
John Temple’s account of tracking the story of the man who helped his parents escape the Nazis during World War II wasn’t really newsworthy decades later. But it was a powerful personal story and also excellent journalism. I’m glad John told the story, and I wish more journalists would tell the important stories of their own lives.
Journalists are good at using other people’s anecdotes to illustrate the third-person stories that account for most of journalism. But first-person stories can be powerful journalism, too. I hope to see more journalists and news organizations willing to tell personal stories.