Sarah White Q&A

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To be honest, I don’t remember how I first encountered Sarah White. It may have been through learning about the Association of Personal Historians. In any case, I am fascinated by this growing area of storytelling and pleased to have Sarah as a Q&A subject.

Bio: Sarah White provides writing services for individuals, families, businesses, and communities from her home base in Madison, WI. Typical projects include books, articles, online content, and life histories. She is currently leading reminiscence writing workshops, and producing group publishing projects and public story performances.

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Q&A with Sarah White:

Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?

A: For 12 years I directed my own marketing communication firm. After the sale of that business I built a freelance writing/consulting practice, providing marketing communications and how-to advice for small businesses. I was frequently hired to help other authors find publishers and prepare their books for publication.
As my professional pursuits have drawn me in different directions, I have sought a way to bring my many skills “back under one umbrella”. When I learned about the field of personal history, I discovered my professional skills and my personal interests weaving together. Today I help individuals, families, businesses and communities record their stories for presentation in book form and more. I also lead reminiscence writing workshops and hands-on intergenerational programs exploring personal history.
Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makesstorytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: In our world of 24/7 news feeds, social media, etc., we are trying to drink from a firehose of information, and we’re finding ourselves bowled over yet still thirsty. I believe this is because we perceive there is “no time for story” — we’re served up information in a cut-to-the-chase, just-the-facts-ma’am style and it is simply not meeting our needs. The storytelling movement is about restoring — “re-story-ing” if you will — a more authentic means of learning from each other and drawing meaning from our own experiences.

Q: What people or entities have been most influential to you in your story work and why?

A: I have been a member of the Association of Personal Historians since 2002. I have attended our annual conference every year, and served on the board 2004-2008. Why? This group has a remarkable culture of generosity. I’ve learned so much from my colleagues in APH.

Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came about through a story or storytelling act?

A: In 2006 I was asked to help a community center preserve the stories of the people it serves. Not sure how to begin, I founded a “History Club” and began inviting people to join us for reminiscing about neighborhood history. Young homeowners came to learn the history of their houses and the streetscape around them. Older residents past and present reunited with childhood friends. The fun was contagious. We began capturing their stories and images of the mementos they brought — scrapbooks, old menus, high school trophies — you name it! In 2008 the community center agreed to fund a publication, and “An East Side Album” was the result — over 160 pages of stories, photos and recipes from over 100 contributors, of which I was the lead organizer and editor. Sales benefit the community center but the real story here isn’t about fundraising — it’s about “fun-raising.” We created a venue for a kind of socializing that hadn’t existed before.

Q: You write on your Web site: “The latest addition to my scope of interest is life story writing. When I learned about this field, I discovered my professional skills and my personal interests weaving together.” How did you learn about the field? What attracted you? You note that life-story writing is a growing field. What factors do you feel are contributing to its growth?

A: I discovered personal history — storytelling for individuals — through an introduction to a working professional, Anita Hecht. As soon as I saw what she was doing, the lightbulb went on for me. I was tired of working in advertising/marketing; I sought something that was more about the heart, and less about the wallet. I certainly found that. I think personal history is growing as people discover that the legacy they leave to their families is incomplete without some sense of their lives — what they learned from what they lived through, what they valued, and why. Another factor contributing to the growth of life-story writing is new technology, such as short-run printing, DVDs, and collaborative websites, that expand the possibilities for creating and distributing those memories. As a result, there is a growing business opportunity for professional services dedicated to preserving memories.

Q: Undoubtedly many reasons exist for writing one’s personal history. What do you feel is the most compelling reason? Why should people consider hiring a Personal Historian to assist them in this endeavor?

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A: My work in oral history has shifted in the last few years from the interview model to writing instruction. The emphasis remains on the first-person experience of “ordinary” people, but the method is more efficient and more empowering to individuals. I believe that small groups offer an ideal format for exploring autobiographical writing. I lead 12+ writing groups a year around Dane County. I’m expanding that to include online writing classes and a travel experience combining memoir and genealogy. Lots going on here!
Leaving a legacy for grandchildren and beyond is typically the reason that compels people to begin preserving their personal history. But once people get started writing, they get hooked on so many more aspects of the work. “I am surprised at the effect this writing class has on me. It makes my life seem more real and valuable,” said one participant. “The class is filled with the most interesting people!” said another.
Writing down our life stories connects generations and communities. That’s compelling. As to why hire a personal historian — procrastination is the single biggest factor preventing people from completing their life stories. Hiring an individual to help is a great way to keep the project on track, no matter what form the collaboration takes — and the forms are infinite.

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Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...

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