Storytelling and Personal History

Turner Hollmanby Marjorie Turner-Hollman

One of my biggest challenges as a beginning storyteller was finding stories that “worked,” that were engaging, while offering multiple opportunities for participation. I found both my young children, and the students in my “music, movement and storytelling classes” to be great allies, my first “test audiences” in my quest. Bedtime stories became opportunities for my children to tell me, “Yes, that would work for you, Mom!” while my students provided immediate feedback about each story I brought to the classroom, noting which stories they thought other children might enjoy.

After I was struck with a serious illness that left me unable to walk for a time, and with reduced stamina, I gave up performing for audiences. But my love of story remained, and I found an outlet for this passion by writing for my local newspaper, and soon for additional publications. I developed a niche of writing personal profiles, assisting each person to tell in their own words how they accomplished what set them apart, what made a difference in their community.

As I wrote I soon recognized parallels between my past and present life. Rather than seeking out stories for me to perform, my job had become to assist others to become compelling storytellers. As I’d learned in my many years attending Sharing the Fire (STF) and other storytelling conferences, listening, rather than talking, was still the key.

When I discovered the Association of Personal Historians, (APH) I learned that many others around the world are working to help families preserve and pass on their treasured family stories. Some of my colleagues use video tools to accomplish this goal. Others use audio recordings, while I and others create printed books for our clients.

My goal as a personal historian is to help the tellers share their stories in a way that can be preserved. I digitally record all my interviews, assuring that I capture the rhythms, tone, and content of the story. Transcribing these recordings is a somewhat tedious but essential part of preserving the integrity of the story.

But here’s the story magic: I take each transcription and transform the client’s story or series of stories into a sensible narrative that others can enjoy reading. I gently massage transitions between story episodes, eliminating the inevitable repetitions that occur in any conversation, since this is essentially what these stories consist of. Ultimately, the stories are compiled into books that can be easily shared with others.

Family members and others gain insight into important parts of a loved one’s life. The “tellers” see the stories in a new light, perhaps for the first time grasping that they did, indeed, accomplish much more than they ever gave themselves credit for. And the next generation? They gain the chance to see a beloved parent or grandparent as a person who was once a child and had childish adventures, despite their now perhaps elderly appearance.

One of the most important aspects (to me) of this personal history work is convincing others that they too have a story to tell, the same lesson I learned at multiple STF events. So whether you’re up on a stage in front of an audience sharing a personal story, or sitting quietly in someone’s living room while listening to how your client got her first job, we’re all experiencing the power of story. It’s the power of seeing oneself differently, making peace with one’s past, and forging connections. The tools we use may vary, but the effect upon the teller is the same and can be a powerful agent of change. I look forward to finding and supporting allies in this important work we do to make a difference.

Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian, and is the author of several personal histories as well as local trail guides, Easy Walks in Massachusetts, and More Easy Walks in Massachusetts. She has presented workshops at area and regional conferences and was a classroom teacher for nine years. A freelance writer, she has been published in Bellingham Bulletin and numerous other local, regional and national publications over the past 18 years, and is the New England Chair of the Association of Personal Historians.


This blog series is an outgrowth of the LANES Connections Project. This task seeks to celebrate connections to other organizations, professions and milieus to which we are joined through story. If you are joined through story with another organization, profession or milieu, we would love for you to share your experiences with us in a blog.



Storytelling and Personal History — 2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Finding the ‘Story Magic’ in Our Work as Personal Historians | APH Blog

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