Friday, February 22, 2019

How to Write and Publish--8--Grandma's Life Story

People often tell me things like:

“I want to write my life story for my grandchildren, but I don’t know how to begin.”

“Somebody needs to write about Grandpa. He’s had an amazing life. Would you consider doing it for us?”

“Grandma wants to write her stories, but she doesn’t know how to use a computer.”

I’m a writer, I often speak to seniors’ groups, and I am fascinated by people’s stories, so this subject is important to me.

Whether you’re the grandparent, the child, or the grandchild, this is a post just for you.

First, let’s affirm that this is a worthwhile project. Reflecting on life is a good exercise for anyone. When you write about it, you start to notice threads and themes. Ideally, you find a theme of redemption.

Also, when your parent or grandparent is gone or has dementia, suddenly you think of all the questions you’d like to ask them, and it’s too late.

The second thing to establish is that your goal isn’t a published, bestselling book. That sort of goal will tempt you to manipulate the story into something it isn't meant to be, hamper the free flow of memories, and make you vulnerable to false promises from pretend publishers. Your goal is to write down a life, primarily for the younger ones in the family.

If you like, you can limit this to a small and quite manageable project, as my sister Margaret did years ago. She got Mom and Dad to write down five or six stories from their childhoods, and Margaret added a few she recalled them telling her. She typed them up, added pictures, and had them copied and bound at a local printer.

Our children loved this book.

For a bigger adult-book-sized project:

1.       If you can make this work as a group project, wonderful. Usually, it needs two committed people: the grandparent telling their story, and one younger person who knows about computers and online research.

2.       Gather what you already have, like the letters on fragile onionskin paper that Uncle Johnny gave me, that Dad had written to him during the CPS years. Pictures, letters, postcards, journals—all of it will be valuable.

3.       This will all look like a huge task. You’ll start to think—We’re not writers. Why don’t we hire a writer to do this? The truth is, unless you’re quite well off, you won’t be able to pay a writer what he or she is worth.

Also, unless the subject of the book is a celebrity or historical figure, it’s unlikely that you can publish and sell enough copies to pay for a writer.

Usually, this is a work of love, not money.

4.       My method for my own future memoir—and all kinds of writing—is dozens of jotted notes to jog my memory. The other day I found a paper that said, “Going to school in the manure spreader.” That will be worth about 2000 words I think. Seriously, the manure spreader. What a reputation we must have had in the neighborhood. Ok, I digress. If you’re writing your own story, I recommend these jotted notes. Once we pass age 50, ideas show up once and then they’re gone. So capture them while you have the chance.

Also, if you can, recruit the children and grandchildren to jot lists of stories they recall Grandma telling them or pieces of history that are unclear.

5.       Choose a method and start recording stories in detail. Grandma can type on a typewriter, type on a computer if she’s managed this skill, or write longhand and then someone else can type it up later.

She can talk to another person who can take it all down as she speaks.

She can record her stories on a computer program like Audacity and save the files to be typed later. There are also talk-to-text programs and online transcription services. I am not an expert at any of this, but I know they are handy for people who would rather talk than write.

6.       Decide on a basic structure for the book. Do you want to move along chronologically, starting with birth and marching straight through the years? Are there eras that deserve more focus, such as the Depression and the war years? Do you want the book to follow separate themes such as travels, education, work, and family? Or do you want a general theme such as God’s guidance or surviving catastrophes or recovery from loss? If so, you’ll select more stories and memories that fit that theme, and omit others.

7.       A simple accumulation of memories makes for a fine book, but it’s good to ask “What does this show us?” about each incident. Does it show Dad’s personality, what Depression life was like, or God’s provision? Does it show the beginnings of your fear of speaking up? This will help shape your story and give it another layer of depth.

8.       As the stories accumulate, assemble and sort the memorabilia you’ve gathered. Letters and such can be included whole, quoted from here and there, or used only to verify events and dates. Photos can jog memories and can be included in the book at your discretion.

9.       If you’re the person helping Grandma with her book, one of the biggest decisions is whether and how much to alter and edit her story. On the one hand, it is her story to tell and she needs the freedom to tell it. On the other hand, if she talks about Uncle Elmer’s gambling habits and Cousin Ethel’s dirty floors, you’re going to have a family uproar--louder if you're Kropfs or Smuckers and quieter if you're Yoders, but an uproar in any case.

Also, if she repeats herself a lot, you should cut it down, with her permission. If it’s poorly written and hard to read, it will need some gentle edits.

Of course it will need basic proofreading—spelling and such.

The more it’s her words telling her story, the more authentic it will be and, in the long term, the more valuable. 

That is my opinion and you are allowed to disagree.

10.   I recommend an online printer for this kind of memoir. Here are a few possibilities:
Create Space (
Lulu (
48 Hour Books (

At these sites, you upload your document, and they help you format the book and design a cover. Then they’ll “print on demand,” which means printing the amount you need, when you need them, usually for a reasonable price.

You are hiring them to print the book for you. They are not publishers in the traditional sense. Sometimes you can order extra services such as advertising your book or putting it on or Ingram, the big book distributor. I don’t recommend these services, especially for this sort of book.

11.   If you don’t want to work online, find a local printer and see what they can do for you. For a memoir, 50 copies is a good number for a first printing—more if you have a large family, less if it’s small, using Mennonite standards for “large” and “small.”

Here are a few printers that friends of mine have recommended.
Carlisle Printing (
Schlabach Printing (
Masthof Press (

12.   If you find that people are passing the book around and asking for more, and you’re ordering 50 or 100 books at a time to meet the demand, then it might be time to re-publish the book with a professional cover, an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) and bar code so bookstores can carry it, and a copyright page with all the necessary information. Or you could talk to a publisher about buying and re-publishing it.

13.   Putting a book together is not an easy process, but the generations to come will thank you.

Our Story:
Mom was the storyteller of the family. She is gone now, and I keep thinking of questions to ask her. One of these years I want to write her story—not so much a chronology of her life but a collection of the stories she used to tell us. I hope I can get my siblings to write down their memories for this project. I never pushed her to write her story because she told us so much of it verbally, but I should have encouraged to write more of it.

I wanted Dad to write his life story because it had so many intriguing historical elements—Civilian Public Service and settling Mennonite refugees in Paraguay, for example—and because he told us so little of it.

He spent four summers at our house and spent many hours on the couch with a lap desk on his thin legs, writing with pen—or “ball point” as he said—on paper. Our daughter Emily transcribed his work. I did very basic editing—turning MN into Minnesota, for instance.

Writing the book did not turn Dad into a storyteller, which should have surprised me less than it did. He still preferred dry recounting of events. But that’s ok. It was his to tell.

I felt that there were two big gaps in his story: he wrote very little about his and Mom’s courtship and life together and almost nothing about his relationship with God.
“Ach, I don’t want it to be a romance novel!” he said. All right then. We left it as it was.

Dad’s grammar and sentence structure were excellent as always, so we didn’t change that at all unless he repeated himself.

Dad chose the title: A Chirp from the Grass Roots, an imagery of a little cricket on the farm with something to say. He wanted sheep on the cover.

I was going to take my time with finding a printer, but suddenly I heard that he was going to a family reunion in three weeks. What a perfect book launching that would be, surrounded by a few dozen nieces and nephews. So I went online and found 48 Hour Books, where their turnaround time is literally 48 hours.

I contacted my friend Ellen Gerig who takes beautiful photos of local scenes, and yes, she had a picture of sheep in a field that I could use.

48 Hour Books had a great tutorial that walked me through formatting the pages. I added a few photos at the end, which wasn’t too difficult or expensive, since they were not in color. I uploaded the cover photo of sheep and also one of Mom and Dad for the back cover, and someone there helped me design the cover layout. I wrote the copy (words) for the back cover.

The cost was around $6 per book. If you ordered 100 copies you got 25 more free, so that’s what I did, and they reached Oklahoma in time for the reunion. I’ve ordered at least two more printings since.

It has not been a money-making venture at all, but I’m so glad I pursued it. One reader told his daughter who told me that Mr. Yoder is a much better writer than his daughter. I was delighted that Dad got a rave review.

Your grandparents' stories deserve to be written down. So do yours.

Here's Dad and Ernest Witmer signing books for each other.


  1. This has been so helpful, thanks for sharing your experience and wisdom. My father wrote and published his life story, finished my mother's after she passed, then wrote my youngest sister's (she was a special needs child adoption), and his mother's. We are so grateful for all his hard work. I want to capture my husband's story and my own before we lose our memories. This has given me the push I needed. Thanks again!!

    1. So glad to hear you're going ahead with this!

  2. This is such an encouraging series on writing and publishing. Will you be selling it in booklet form? If so, I want one, please. =)

    1. Yes! Me too! I feel like I might actually be able to organize my scribblings now! Exciting!

    2. You two make me so happy! I was so hoping someone would be motivated to attack a writing project. And I hoped there would be interest in a booklet. So my day is officially made.

    3. I want your How-to booklet also! I was thinking of printing out your posts, but I'd rather have the official version. LRM

    4. Ms Dorcas is selling herself short here! Or could she somehow have forgotten? She wrote a wonderful 13-part series on the same topic in February and March 2019:

  3. Put me down for several booklets! Here is someone who’s blazed the trail, killed the snakes, built the fences for the rest of us. All we do is enter into her wisdom. I am so grateful for your posts.