History Invites Journals Related To The Great Pandemic of 2020

Masked children in a fountain surround a person wearing PPE

Generations from now Americans will look back and wonder what it was like being part of the momentous events swirling around us in 2020.

  • The Great Pandemic of 2020 resulted in millions of people getting sick with the COVID-19 virus and hundreds of thousands of deaths. What was it like trying to stay healthy and keeping your family safe?
  • Americans were making a critical decision about their President. Should they re-elect Donald Trump, or should they go with Joe Biden? The country was more divided than ever.
  • One way to curtail spread of the virus was to urge people to stay home from work. Millions of people lost their jobs; unemployment skyrocketed; and many household incomes plummeted.
  • On top of all that, Americans struggled with violence that accompanied protests against four centuries of racism in their country and the mistreatment and killing of Blacks by some police officers.

It was an ugly time.

In places around the country, historians are gathering the raw data for what will become interpretations of our momentous year. At Michigan’s Grand Valley State University the focus is on COVID-19. “History is happening now,” the university archivist wrote about its journaling project. “In the future, scholars will look back on this time to learn about individuals’ and societies’ responses to a worldwide pandemic. While archived news and internet sites will be essential primary sources, the day-to-day, mundane, social, and emotional experiences of individuals can get lost in the fray.”

Students, staff and community members are being asked to write journals containing their personal recollections. The same thing is being done in Wisconsin. “It is your documentation of your experience living during the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine that will allow the Society to share history with people living 100 years from now,” the society’s chief executive wrote.

As noted above, the pandemic is only one of the seismic forces that converged on American life this year. A person interested in preserving his or her observations about the year’s events could begin with a journal or oral recording. There is a certain advantage to being the one using the keyboard or the microphone instead of relying on others to record their thoughts. As Sir Winston Churchill once said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”

So, if you decide to write a journal or make regular recordings, where would you start? Fortunately, there is already existing inspiration for that, thanks to The New York Times. The newspaper has offered scores of questions (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/28/learning/177-questions-to-inspire-writing-discussion-debate-and-reflection.html) to inspire this work. Here are several to get you started:

On the pandemic:

  • How concerned are you about the coronavirus outbreak?
  • How is it affecting your life?
  • How are you staying healthy and fit?
  • How can we help one another during the outbreak?
  • What weaknesses and strengths about our world are being exposed by this pandemic?
  • What have you learned about yourself during the lockdown?
  • Is the coronavirus pandemic bringing you and your family closer together?
  • How do you feel about going back to your workplace or your school? Is it stressful or are you happy to get out of the house?
  • What did you miss most about your school or workplace?
  • When the pandemic is over, what is something you’ll miss about telecommuting?
  • How will you remember the coronavirus pandemic?

On the presidential election:

  • What makes a great leader?
  • How do you decide what news to believe, what to question and what to dismiss?
  • Why is it important for people with different political beliefs to talk to each other?
  • Do you think that online conspiracy theories can be dangerous? Why?
  • What are your reactions to the impeachment inquiry and trial of President Trump?
  • What is your reaction to the outcome of the presidential primaries around the country?
  • Should we all be able to vote by mail?
  • What do you think about the two major party candidates for President?
  • What issues in the 2020 presidential race are most important to you?

On the American economy:

  • How has your family fared financially during 2020? Has anyone lost a job? If so, what financial help have you received?
  • Whom do you turn to during a crisis?
  • Is it immoral for stores to increase the price of goods during a crisis?
  • How do you decide what news to believe, what to question and what to dismiss?
  • What are some ways to travel without traveling during the pandemic?

On racism and killings of Blacks:

  • Is there systemic racism in your hometown? If so, is it evident in the way police act toward civilians?
  • How have you learned about slavery?
  • How much racism do you face in your daily life?
  • Have you ever encountered racist or extremist content online?
  • What grievances do you have with your local community?
  • What acts of kindness have you heard about or participated in during the pandemic?
  • Protests over racism and police tactics have preceded violence in some U.S. cities, including Portland and Seattle. Some say this is an ugly repudiation of the non-violence preached by peaceful protestors like the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the late Rep. John Lewis? What do you think?

If you decide to write a journal or record your observations on these and other questions, you may find that they are welcome at historical societies, as in Wisconsin. The Willamette Heritage Center in Salem is interested in the idea, but no commitment has been made.

You also may seek help from members of Personal Historians NW in writing books and making recordings of these histories. Just click on the Find Your Personal Historian link to get started.


John Hawkins

August, 2020

Personal Historians NW “In The News”

Three members of Personal Historians NW appeared in the Portland Tribune and several other Pamplin Media outlets in the Portland Metro area on June 11, 2020.

Capturing Your Life Stories” personal historian Connie Shipley submitted a story idea to Pamplin, a tip that was picked up by local journalist Jason Vandersmith. The reporter reached out to the group to talk about the work being done by personal historians. Connie said in her blog  The “COVID-19 stay-at-home experience gives people time to get their stories organized for their grandchildren like wouldn’t happen in the old reality that we lived in.”

Members who were interviewed for the article included Connie Shipley of Portland, AuraLee Loveland of Oregon City and Gloria Nussbaum of Beaverton, three of the more than 20 members of the organization. They represent a swath of the work being done throughout the Northwest (and the world) by group members.

The members provide services including presentations on personal histories, photo digitization, memoir writing, interviewing, oral and video biographies and a myriad of other personal history related activities.

“The collection of people, through contract or for fun and goodwill, document human history — one family, one individual, one group, one company at a time. They live and work anywhere from Centralia, Washington, to Eugene”. They “have told stories for people around the country — many of them elder folks who want to share details of a life well-lived.”

More than 500 stories have been told, recorded and published in a variety of formats by the members of the organization.


We Are Living In Historic Times

It seems like a long time ago that we were able to go wherever, with whomever, whenever we wanted. Until then, “pandemic” was a word in the dictionary, something we read about in novels or history books or saw on TV and movie screens. It was abstract and “out there”, not something most of us thought about, let alone realized could or would happen to us. But all that changed in early March 2020.

Photographs by Angela Strassheim for TIME; David Ryder for TIME; Wang Wei for TIME; Anastasia Taylor-Lind for TIME; Forough Alaei—VII Mentor Program/Redux for TIME; Luca Locatelli for TIME

Literally overnight, our familiar lives were turned upside down. Rather than the overhead freeway sign telling us how many minutes it would take to get to “Hwy 217,” it now proclaimed in BIG BOLD letters: STAY HOME…SAVE LIVES. This went against everything our busy, look-out-for-number-one society had been telling us for decades. Instead we heard “we’re all in this together.” And to a certain extent that’s true. BUT, while we may be in the same ocean, we are each in our own boat. And that’s where we personal historians come in.

 Lake County Health Department

Personal historians often work with seniors, or a new term I recently learned, those in the “third age.”  One of the questions we ask is “how did you make it through…the Great Depression, the war, the dust bowl,” etc. Since these are life-defining moments, it’s important to hear which practices and tools were helpful…or not. Such stories can help us navigate the challenging times in which we are living. 

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) 

Everyone has a story and that has never been more apparent than it is right now. The reality is that each of us is figuring out how to get through this pandemic…what works for one is not working for someone else…even, or maybe especially…if they are living under the same roof. It follows that it’s important for each person to tell her or his own story so different perspectives are documented. 

Working with a professional to record or write your story is an excellent way to help future generations understand how YOU made it through the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. And the time to get started is NOW while specific details that make the best stories are fresh in our minds.

Click on the “Find Your Personal Historian” link to get started. We’re ready to help!

Gloria Nussbaum

Real to Reel



Why would you want to write your life story?

You may have had friends suggest that you write your biography and think to yourself, “Who would want to know my story? I just lived my life and it wasn’t that exciting.” What you may find is that, once you get started, your life is a lot more interesting in the retelling and you will enjoy revisiting your journey through life from the perspective of where you are now. 

What I have found in the stories of the people I have interviewed over the years is a congruity in their journeys. A childhood experience can have a profound impact on their adventures as an adult. Did that happen to you? 

a line labrinth

If you are familiar with labyrinths, a person walks on a path that leads toward the center of the labyrinth and then back out. There is no getting lost. It is not a maze where people get lost and not make it to the goal point. Did you feel that you were in a maze in your youth? Did you have a struggle finding your path in life? Guess what, you’ve made it to where you are now. Why not take some time and reflect on the path looking back? You might surprise yourself and see that there really was a flow in the decisions you made, and you were on a path leading you to where you are now, even if you didn’t know it. 

I have heard some wonderful stories of synchronicity, my clients meeting someone, seemingly randomly, who became their spouse with whom they had a wonderful family, or possibly a mentor at work who helped them get to a better career. After talking through their experiences, many clients can see how the sequence of events in their lives have an amazing connection and feel a sense of wonder and gratitude. 

Before starting your project, I strongly encourage you taking the time to inventory of how much energy, time and money you want to spend compiling your life story? I have divided the possibilities into four packages: 

Antique photo of two girls with dolls and a table set for tea

The Spring Package is about your best memories of a time in your life. Did your family travel or live in a special place you have fond memories of? Was there a school you attended that was particularly meaningful to you? This project can be a short one, yet special for the ones you share it with. 

The Summer Package is where you talk about five generations of your family (or more) – your grandparents, parents, yourself, children, and grandchildren. It is good to do this while you have the energy and recall ability, making a great book with lots of fun anecdotes about your whole family. This can include pictures and a genealogy. 

The Fall Package is where you give an overview of your whole life and make references to other people in your life. This will be a smaller investment of time, energy and money than the Summer Package. It will have a compilation of the stories that come easily to mind and will include your favorite pictures. This is truly a wonderful gift for the family to get to know you better and for you to better understand your past and your journey. 

The Winter Package helps you share what is in your heart in a brief page or two manuscript. You get to share the most important lessons, or pieces of important family history, you’ve learned in your lifetime and want to pass on. It is a way to share a brief overview of your life, your values, life lessons, hopes and dreams. While it is not a legal document, it can be the most precious gift you leave behind for those following to treasure. 

The point I want to make is that you will find this to be a meaningful exercise for yourself and you can share your story in a manner that feels appropriate to you. You control how large of a project you will be working on should you decide to write your personal story or have a personal historian help you through the project. Take the time to plan what you want to be sure to cover. 

Once you get started, you can still adjust the scope and make it more comprehensive or shorter. If you have been thinking of getting your life stories in a book or manuscript there is no time is like the present. You will be giving yourself and your family a gift. 

Connie Shipley Personal Historian of Capturing Your Life Stories

Connie Shipley, Capturing Your Life Stories 

Contact Connie Shipley by email

Maia Fischler and Cheryl McLean, Life Writer Personal Histories

Life Writer, Capturing the Stories That Connect the Generations

Getting to Completion

By Maia Fischler, LifeWriter Personal Histories

When I met Dianna Hanson, she had been working on her manuscript for over a year without really believing she’d ever manage to publish it. She had enjoyed the writing process, and she was excited to pass her story along to her nieces and nephews, to help them understand the times their parents lived and the experiences that shaped them. But she wasn’t really sure if she was finished, and she didn’t know what steps to take to complete her vision: a beautiful book, illustrated with family photos and professionally bound.

When I told her I could read her work, make suggestions, and get the story to final form, she was delighted. And she was even happier when I told her my partner would take her collection of family photos, clean them up, integrate them with the story in a beautiful design, and see the book through the printing process. 

Many people are writing their own life stories these days, and as personal historians, we are thrilled about that! But we realize that not everyone is comfortable taking their work from manuscript to final printing on their own. We can step in to help at any point: transcribing old diaries and letters, editing and helping complete manuscripts, interviewing loved ones, restoring documents and photos, creating the perfect design, and more. 

What a great experience to work with Maia and Cheryl on the memoir I wrote for my family. Maia went beyond editing, pointing out areas where the reader might like further information and making other constructive suggestions. Cheryl was invaluable in placing photographs, designing the book and working with the printer. It was just the help I was looking for. 

–Dianna Hanson

LifeWriter Personal Histories

Capturing the stories that connect the generations

Maia Fischler Owner and Editor Life Writer Books
Maia Fischler

Maia Fischler has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years. She is a good listener and creative interviewer, dedicated to bringing out the best in family storytellers. 

Cheryl McClean Book Designer for Life Writer
Cheryl McLean

Cheryl McLean has designed hundreds of publications for clients across the country. She owns Imprint Services, an editing and design firm in Corvallis, Oregon, as well as Jackson Creek Press. 

Maia Fischler, LifeWriter 

PO Box 1290

Albany, OR 97321

541-745-7391 ◆ maia@life-writer.com

Maia and Cheryl’s Life Writer Website