A business card left at a coffee shop that garners a $50,000+ writing gig. Same card, different coffee shop, that results in a feature story in a local publication.
No, it’s not the card that’s magic, but the profession it advertises: life story writer. Those were only two of the many strokes of good luck I’ve had since I started my career as a life story and family history writer nearly ten years ago. The genre, also known as personal history, serves a population of mostly older adults eager to preserve their stories without having to do the writing themselves. The books are intended for family and friends, not the wider public, so there’s no need for queries, book proposals, agents, or publishers—just a client willing to invest the time and money to record their cherished memories
Here’s how it works: I sit down with a client for a series of interviews in which we talk about their growing-up years, their parents and siblings and relatives, their first loves, their war experiences, their careers, their challenges and joys, their reflections on what it all means—in other words, anything they feel moved to talk about. In between interviews, I’m at my desk, shaping our transcripts into a compelling narrative that will, if I’m doing my job right, give future generations a glimpse of family members they may or may not have ever met.
This kind of writing does more than reveal the character of the narrator; it also brings to life long-ago eras. Think about it: The fifty years or so that separates the generation of grandparents from their grandchildren means that they will each spend the bulk of their life in two vastly different worlds—even if they live in the same town. It’s the difference between a horse-drawn plow and an air-conditioned combine, between a one-room schoolhouse and a middle school with a thousand kids, between an outhouse and a heated toilet seat. The world is changing fast; people who hire me want their descendants to know what the world used to look like.
Why has it been so easy to find clients and publicity? Two reasons. The first is a swell in interest in life stories. With genealogy the second most searched topic on the internet (I’ll leave you to imagine the first), with DNA kits topping the list of holiday gifts and shows like “Who Do You Think You Are?” topping the charts, it’s clear that people are curious about their roots. And because we’re storytelling creatures, it’s only natural that the focus should swing from data—birthdates, death dates, cemetery plot numbers—to what we really love: the stories that bring it all to life.
And the second reason I’ve been able to make a living as a life story writer? Supply and demand. There may be loads of clients wanting to hire someone to write their story, but there aren’t loads of writers to do so. I’m guessing that’s because most writers have never heard of this niche. What a shame. Not only is it a way to earn your keep by writing, but it allows you to connect with people on a level we seldom reach with any but our closest friends. All while helping to create something your clients will love.
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