Down the Rabbit Hole

Have you ever felt like Alice in Wonderland when you approach sensitive topics for your journal or memoir? Or wonder if answering painful questions when interviewed is worth the effort? When I lose sleep over canstockphoto18533206painful issues in my life, I see Alice’s rabbit hole and fear falling down into the labyrinth of memories. Will I risk getting stuck in the quagmire of thoughts unspooling from the dark recesses of my soul? As memories stir I can feel the rough edges and instinctively rear back, startled, backpedaling to safer places in my psyche. The minute of revelation is poised on a pinprick of time, holding some strange power over me as I resist being submerged in a snarled tangle of unresolved issues.

So what good could possibly come from entertaining memories of pain, what good from assigning words to the mess?  You can’t change the past!

Studies have shown there are actually health benefits from writing or talking, such as lowered blood pressure, and increased immune and cardio-vascular function. Some people have even experienced relief of symptoms like asthma or arthritis pain. Emotional health benefits are touted too, like relief from depression or enhanced happiness as memories are put into words. Stress reduction, both emotional and physical is another benefit. 51HV+ckXYdL._AA160_A good book that reiterates these truths is Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise Desalvo if you’re interested in reading more about why and how you should write a journal or memoir!

Writing down your feelings can actually be your ladder out of that rabbit hole. The dangers of being stuck in the quagmire all but vanish as you find words for your story. Tangled cobwebs of thought are freed, thoughts that had been spiraling into themselves wreaking havoc on your soul clarify until they can enjoy the light of day. Seeing your thoughts and feelings on paper can make your experience more real and can lead to a final resolution of issues. May peace reign!

Take charge by writing about an emotional upheaval in your life. Your thoughts will become coherent and you’ll have a story that will enrich your memoir. Or tear those pages up, burn them, and you’ll reap the benefits of calm and peace.

Storytelling, From Journal to Memoir

If you still don’t believe you have a story worth telling, or that your life is too insignificant to merit writing about, or you have a tough inner critic that shoots down your every thought, I challenge you to start by journaling privately. Loosen up your mind and shrug off the feelings of self-consciousness that come from wondering what folks will think of what you write. Be a little wild and just write. Wild? Yes. Tell your stories! All those inhibitions, fears of not being good enough, wondering what so- and-so would think if they read what you write, all those thoughts that cramp your expression will evaporate until you’re left with the distillation of your true thoughts. That can be a little heady, that can make your thoughts free… and yes perhaps a bit wild.

Journal privately and let the words flow. Access your wild side!

If you start with a journal you can write about all the things that happen in your life; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Tease out the feelings that are keeping you up at night. Often reducing nebulous feelings to words helps release their power over you. To paraphrase the title of  a good book on writing by Natalie Goldberg; write down to the bones. Strip down to your raw emotions, express your anger, fear, sorrow, joy, and hope. Rant if you need to. My rants can rage and bounce all over the page and leave me wondering where that came from! Write letters and then destroy them. Sometimes the simple act of writing will help you find out what you really think and help you sift through your life to the story you want to tell, while the chaff of insignificance blows away with the breeze. Thoughts in a jumble? Raw hurt or joy or wonder can be sorted out on paper until you unearth that story that will resonate with your children and grandchildren.

This same principle works with the interviewing process too. Find someone you trust to ask the questions that will loosen your tongue. Or interview someone close to you to find out the untold stories. The private stuff can be sorted out later as an interview is refined to uncover the gem of a story.

Some folks like to start out journaling, then lift material from that secret private place to a memoir that can be read by all. Do you already have journals that you would hate for your kids to find and read? Do you sometimes have an urge to burn them? Sift through them first and salvage the heady stuff, the froth of your life that can add color and illuminate your unique personality. Most likely your life is more interesting than you first thought as the stories all come together, and yes, perhaps, just perhaps, a bit wild! Wild is good. You can always tame your beast later when you uncover stories you can share.

Here’s a hypothetical transformation of feelings from an event to a private journal, then to a memoir with a wider audience:

Experience: You are betrayed by someone you love and trust. Your chest feels tight, your hands are clammy, and your gut roils as you experience the bludgeon weight of a betrayal.

Journal: I feel anger, hurt, sadness, distrust, jealousy and confusion. But the feelings are condensed into one heavy weight, stifling, crushing. Thoughts swirl. Am I loved, can I still love? What is love anyway? Can love exist without trust? I never would have believed it could happen. Today the unthinkable knocked me off kilter, shocked me to my core. _________ said this, revealed betrayal. I responded with _________.  I feel numb, crushed. You get the gist… so many of us have been there for all sorts of reasons. The journal entry sorts through feelings and explains what happened.

Changed to memoir:  This part is tricky and in a later blog I’ll write about how to figure out how much to share when there is the possibility of hurting someone with new knowledge, or heaping insult on injury by exacting your own mini-betrayal by sacrificing someone’s privacy. The beauty and power of a memoir is measured by the illumination of universal truths in experiences that folks can relate to or empathize with, stories that affirm and release our feelings that resonate with people. We discover our lives are not ordinary, but significant in ways we had never thought of!  A well told story can protect the privacy of those concerned while interpreting an event to reveal the common thread of shared humanity. Oh.. you wanted an example from an actual (or hypothetical!) memoir based on the above experience? Tune in later!

Your life is Significant

In my last blog post I told of my great-great-grandfather moving to Iowa from Sweden in the 1860s. I learned that story from my great-grandmother Paulines’s amazing yellow book of family history. She also told of how her father Sven had the idea of mailing a small packet of seeds to his mother Lena back in Sweden. He told her to plant them in a pot and see what grew. So she did. She carefully planted a few of the funny looking seeds, put the pot on the windowsill and waited. It wasn’t long before she had to move that pot to the floor and soon after that she was inviting her friends and family over to see this strange new plant from the New World. It was maize; she had a stalk of corn growing tall in her parlor! canstockphoto4025004Corn had not yet been introduced to Sweden and Sven wanted to show his mother the new crop he was planting in Iowa.

I love that story! Lena was the wooden shoe maker and I would guess she wouldn’t have thought her life story was significant. Lots of folks made wooden shoes, she was no different. But how do you think she would have felt if she knew that her expertise would be appreciated by her great-great- great granddaughter in Iowa! And that I got a chuckle picturing that tall stalk of corn in her parlor! Lena lived in a world I will never experience except through the stories preserved in our family history. Yes her stories are significant! And so are yours.

When I promote storytelling, a common concern people have is wondering if their story is significant or thinking their lives are too mundane. I encourage everyone to look at their lives in new ways. You are important and you have a unique voice, a story to tell that no one else has lived. The historical era you live in also shapes your story. Your parents may remember how the Great Depression or World War II impacted their lives. Perhaps your life was impacted by the baby boom and ensuing prosperity, or the Vietnam War, either here or abroad. Were you a flower child, a hippy at Woodstock? Your kids and grandkids will be fascinated with how your life is embedded in history.

I was born in Kansas and grew up in Iowa and Illinois. I have farm roots on both sides of my family, but have no personal experience of farming. When I was about 10 years old my dad drove his family across Iowa as we headed to Lake Okoboji for a vacation. I lived in Illinois at that time and the soil there is an orange-brown clay. As we drove past a fallow Iowa farm field, the rich black soil amazed me, teased my imagination as I thought of my ancestors’ farms. canstockphoto3349522Time folded back on itself as the fields shimmered in the summer sun. The emerald green corn reaching for the sky called to me, as it had called to my great-great-grandparents, the Iowa loam nurturing the vibrant corn, a constant over the years, a part of my heritage.

My patient papa heeded my cries to stop and I jumped out of the car with a leftover baggy from lunch and scooped in a few crumbles of black soil warmed by the sun. I imagined my family roots groping through the soil year after year, anchoring my soul to the rich Iowa farmland.


Great-Grandmother Pauline’s Legacy

People often ask if what I do as a personal historian is similar to what a genealogist does. I usually laugh and say, “A genealogist documents dead people. I bring them to life!”

Genealogy has become a popular pursuit as people are fascinated with discovering their family roots.  Websites like are hugely popular as people search for clues to expand their family trees. As more people have a desire to know the stories, not just the names, the website now allows you to link stories to the people on your tree. The tool Family Tree Maker in has a feature called Smart Story which can expand the information included on your family tree based on facts and stories you unearth about a person in your search. You can attach documents, photos, or write a personal story about the person.

Great-Grandmother Pauline on her wedding day in 1912

When I went to Iowa State in Ames years ago I had the added privilege of being near my Great- Grandmother Pauline who lived in Boone just 10 miles away. While I was preoccupied with school she was busy putting together a remarkable book full of family tree charts, maps of Sweden and Iowa, photos of my ancestors, homes where they lived, and churches where they attended. But the part I love the most are the stories of life in Sweden and Iowa in the 1800s. She had called all her relatives and asked them to send her their stories of parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, and uncles. She had no computer, no scanner or printer and painstakingly typed up the stories and organized her material for a local printer. But alas, as a 22-year-old I politely feigned more interest than I felt, threw that precious book down in our basement and didn’t fish it out for many years. I avidly read the stories and scrutinized the family trees, photos and maps. The yellow, water stained book is now one of my treasured possessions. Her efforts fueled my love for family history, and were the inspiration for my business Memory Echoes, LLC.  This story is one of my favorites:

IMG_0059My great-great-great-grandmother Lena lived in southern Sweden in the early 1800s. She was an expert wooden shoe maker and taught her teenage son Sven how to make wooden shoes. She told him if his shoes reflected the quality she demanded, he could sell them and spend the profits on anything he desired. Sven was industrious and spent the long Swedish evenings making shoes. He sold over 400 pairs of shoes at 25 ore a pair, about 7 cents at the time, so he could buy what he wanted…passage to the New World.

He ended up in Fort Dodge, Iowa with only 2 accordions and 75 cents to his name and got a job helping to build a railroad. He worked with many Irishmen who helped him learn English, but they could not say his name Sven, so to please them he changed his name to Swan. He learned of a Swedish Mission Church at Swede Bend where a lot of Swedes had settled just 10 miles north of Pilot Mound, Iowa near Boone. He moved to Pilot Mound and partnered with another man building houses and barns. They prided themselves on doing their own cooking and living on just 15 cents per day. Swan eventually saved up enough to buy a cow, two horses, and a hand plow and rented a small farm 1 mile north of town. Later he bought an 80 acre farm which stayed in the family for over 100 years.

I love that story about my great-great-grandfather Sven and would not know it if Pauline had not taken the time to preserve her personal history stories in a book for her descendants. Your great- grandchildren will be so appreciative if you do the same for them!

Interview the vets in your family!

How about honoring a veteran by interviewing them and writing the story of their life? My Great Uncle Wayne was in WWII and his ship was torpedoed and sank in the Pacific. I always knew that was part of our family history, but how I wish I had talked to him more about his experience. Many of his buddies were killed or drowned. He’s gone now, too late for me to hear his whole story. Appreciate the amazing sacrifices that were made for our freedom by talking to the veterans in your family.

I’ve mentioned George and his Blue Yonder book. I also interviewed a delightful man named Elmer who was a paratrooper in WWII. He started his intense training for that elite group in March of 1945. They tossed big paratrooper-3

logs back and forth for an hour at a time, and jumped out of planes in full gear. By that time the war in Europe was over. They completed combat training so they could be dropped into Japanese villages for battle. Elmer grinned when he remembered the saying, “We’re supposed to be surrounded, we’re paratroopers!” He was based in the Philippines getting ready to leave for Japan for the invasion when the United States dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in mid-August 1945 and Japan surrendered. Elmer said he felt a fleeting disappointment that he would not get a chance to utilize his training, but was as elated as the rest of the country that the United States had achieved victory.

ElmerBookElmer enjoyed telling his story and received his book as his familycelebrated his 90th birthday. Copies were passed all around and Elmer basked in the knowledge that his life stories would not be forgotten. (His last name has been edited from the book cover to preserve his privacy) What better way to honor a veteran? Don’t wait too long to interview the vets in your family.

Learning curve

Full confessions… I admit that I have been stumbling around FB and WordPress trying to figure out how to get them to jive together. Are they friends yet? I dunno. I wrote an “About” page so folks can know what this blog is all about. I am posting my “About” as a “Post” too. Just because I can.

I started a blog to convey my passion for storytelling. I will share stories I have heard from my clients and friends and hopefully jog the memories of readers. There will be opportunities for readers to post their own stories in the comments section. As stories are shared I hope to tease out the filigree of imagination both in my mind and the minds of readers. Often there is no intent to embellish a story, or stretch the truth, but a storyline can take a different direction as we strive to convey the unique way we experience life.

The telling of one shared event passing through the filters of two distinct people, filters of feelings, personality, maturity, or whether or not they had their morning coffee, can sound like two very different events. We’ve all had the experience of listening to someone else’s version and thinking,

“Were they really there with me? That’s not what I think happened!”

The story is truly in the eye of the beholder. If I share stories from my childhood I hope to engage my family to share their own versions which will often differ subtly or even dramatically from mine. As a story becomes part of a memoir it is important to validate that your memories, and my memories advance the storyline of our own unique lives. My life. Or your life. Human history is made up of stories, perspectives, visions of hope or cynicism, the deflation or exaltation of human egos. If you don’t tell your story, your version of your part in the human drama of history will be lost.

Memory Echoes had a great first year!

My new business Memory Echoes, LLC had a great first year! I love to interview folks and consider it a privilege and an honor to hear their stories. As I listen to them, a book forms in my imagination. They trust me with their precious family pictures and documents, I scan them, play in Photoshop, and weave them together with their stories to create a book layout. There is nothing as satisfying as going through the process with them over a period of months and then handing them the finished book. Their life stories are preserved for future generations and a legacy has been passed on.

George’s book!

One of my first clients is a 93 year old man named George. George had a dream. He could picture in his mind’s eye the cover of the book he wanted me to help him create. He was a bombardier in World War II and perched in the Plexiglas nose of a bomber as he flew from his base in Benghazi to targets in Italy. He dropped many bombs and is proud of the role he played in the allied victory.  From imagination to reality, his book cover pops with a bright blue sky and magnificent clouds as the background for his title Blue Yonder. At age 6 he played his own Blue Yonder game with colorful matchstick planes fighting for position under his father’s huge desk. He wanted the book for his memoirs to display the title commemorating the game that inspired his path to the wild Blue Yonder in the WWII US Air Corps. He enjoyed the whole process as I led him through interviews, helped him gather photos, war medals, and letters from his generals, and discussed layout/book production options. We became good friends. George said,

“Linda helped me create this marvelous book and it’s been so well received as I get feedback from my family and friends. She was wonderful to work with, the best.”

 I’m heading over to George’s soon. A tremendous benefit of my business is making new friends and being trusted with their life stories. He’s promised me a glass of wine and will regale me with new stories!