When Deborah fell out of love with teaching, she chose to leverage her passions for history and writing to help the elderly share their life stories—a beautiful way to leave a legacy!
Tell us a little about your background.
As a child in southern Georgia, I wanted to direct art films, but there was no one who encouraged that! I had a family upbringing in the country, where I could ride a horse and absorb values that honored land and family. I graduated from the University of Georgia with a Journalism/Film degree and after a rough start during a recession, found work at the spanking new CNN studios. The curiosity that had sparked an interest in foreign film continued to push me into creative fields: television news editor and later, commercial producer.
I felt strongly about public service and made the switch to field director for Georgia’s Senator Fowler. When Fowler lost a re-election bid, I opened my own small ad agency. As a now divorced single mom without child support, jobs were important as sources of support, not just creativity. Going through a second divorce from a short marriage, I found steadier income as Columbus, Georgia’s Cemetery Director! For two years, I learned about this and improved the historic, active, semi-neglected grounds and services.
I thought about the advantages of teaching, which my parents had always touted. I could get a job “anywhere” and have a few months off each year to create, maybe write a book! While my son was in college, I returned to school for a teaching certificate in English and English as a Second Language. The essay I wrote about fearing change at age 46—I was the oldest by far in my classes—won me a summer of study at Oxford University, all expenses paid, an unexpected bonus! When I returned, I became a teacher in high-risk, urban public schools, first in Atlanta, then in Nashville.
Although most teachers look for a second job to supplement pay during summers, I kept my summers free. While at a songwriting workshop in Nashville, Tennessee, I made a decision to move there—my son was now on his own. In Music City I could be in a creative milieu at last, but still within my familiar Southern culture. I found a teaching job there and at night worked on writing songs or went to hear others sing. Sometimes I freelanced music features for magazines; my writing of a 5-discipline lesson plan on Murder Ballads won an award—cash and a Bluegrass Cruise for myself and my fantastic new husband!
When did you start to think about making a change?
One particularly tough day, I was watching the students come and go in the high school’s halls when I realized: I had lost the love. For ten years, I had felt a radiant love towards each and every student, even the ones who had issues with authority. Now I had high blood pressure and sometimes a class period that I just had to “get through.” I was burnt out. At age 56, it was time to find another career.
What is your next act?
My next act is preserving others’ personal history through my company, Perfect Memoirs. I work with individuals, usually elders, who want to save their life story along with some family history and pass it on to their children, grandchildren, and future generations. I write, design and publish beautiful private or commercial heritage books for clients to give and leave as a legacy. These people are often grateful to have someone work with them so personally, and I in turn, make sure they know how appreciative I am of the sharing of their lives. It’s an honor to learn this wisdom, unique in every person, firsthand.
It allows so much room for creativity, as I help others express their own! I either edit someone’s journals or manuscript, or I interview the person and write a book in their own words. I love having my own one-woman company because I make the decisions, work at home, and get to know lots of interesting people.
Right now I am working with: Mary Williams, a 93-year old woman who had 5 children and ran a Guide business in Nashville; Dr. Paul Gaddis, a WWII veteran with a distinguished academic and corporate career; Jim Hadley, a retired auto dealer who is an active Gideon; Tara Cooper, who is preparing a children’s chapter book memoir based upon her childhood farm experiences; and Grace H. Harbison, an adventurous great-grandmother who enjoyed business, land, patriotism, and education. As you can surmise, I’m hearing some amazing true tales!
How hard was it to take the plunge?
I created this perfect job after reading an article about someone who did it in Canada. Immediately I thought: this is for me! I like history, writing, and older people. This would not happen overnight, I realized. Pieces were put in place gradually as I continued to teach for a year. I joined a professional association for personal historians (now defunct) and worked on my mother’s family to produce a sample book.
I began calling myself a personal historian or ghostwriter, and secured my first client. My chiropractor, “Rockin’ Doc” Staten Medsker, Jr. and I worked together to record his fascinating life story. Later, I took some graphic design courses at night at Watkins Institute of Design in Nashville. Book layouts from Perfect Memoirs showed vast improvement. I prepared speeches, joined history and genealogy clubs, and worked hard to gain access to groups to introduce myself. After a year, I had enough business to resign from teaching and work as a personal historian full time.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My husband Evert encouraged me to do as he had done and “Follow Your Dream.” He helps me at the small trade shows (usually senior health fairs) and sometimes with proofreading, as he was a publicity agent for rock and roll at record labels for many years. Evert works at home too, with his business Teye Guitars which he started when he was 60. Our sons helped me find a website name. My extended family loved the first book about them, but I think they don’t see it as a “real job”—I have too much fun!
What challenges did you encounter?
My strengths are in communication, oral and written, not genealogy. I have had to recognize that lineage-centered books from complicated online family trees are best done by others! I am best at eliciting and preserving stories.
I have to wear the marketing hat too. Speaking engagements and workshops have proved the best ways to share my knowledge and interest potential clients. Preparing and booking these take time, and sometimes I have stage fright. I have learned what works for me to face my fears and move on.
I also manage my website and social media marketing, posting lots of educational articles. I had to learn these online skills, and many of my clients do not use social media so do not cross-promote. I blog regularly about memoir writing and books in Best Book Ever and I write a monthly email blast to subscribers, “Memoir Café.” These are fortunately all outlets for creativity, as was authoring my own how-to book with an original music cd, and promoting it in 2016, with over 30 speaking engagements.
Coupled with finding clients is the challenge of making enough income. Estimating correctly when every project has many variables is also difficult. Intrinsic rewards are stronger than the pay. I have never reached the pay of a teacher. Yet, I have such a rewarding lifestyle!
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Creativity and curiosity are most important to me and serve me well in my next act. I can still learn new skills. I prefer independent, small-scale work. Age has brought me more appreciation for what I do have and less desire for fame, acclaim, and recognition.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
When I returned to college for a teaching career, I opted for a student loan; I should have paid as I went and found the least expensive options. While I was an active parent with a dependent, I should have paid more attention to quality child care and quality time at home. Those mistakes still reverberate.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Explore your choices before you make the jump: make a sample, volunteer, apprentice, role-play.
Invent your business and make sure it serves others.
Continually educate yourself professionally and network.
Have a backup plan, some savings, and a mentor or supportive person.
Acknowledge the risk, learn all you can about your chosen next act, and then—ACT!
What advice do you have for those interested in becoming personal historians?
A personal historian, like other businesses, needs marketing. If you are not interested in that, prepare a budget for it. “How do you find clients?” is usually the first thing I am asked about this career. Advice on that? Other skills needed are those of social interaction and attention to detail. This is a very rewarding career emotionally and creatively but must be approached as a business, like any other.
What resources do you recommend?
Start & Run a Personal History Business: Get Paid to Research Family Ancestry and Write Memoirs by Jennifer Campbell
Business Tips for Personal Historians: 92 Lessons Learned from a Veteran Storyteller by Dan Curtis
My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History, Ed. Paula S. Yost and Pat McNees
Institute of Life Reminiscence and Life Review
Facebook page: Personal Historians
What’s next for you?
I love my job! Two fantasies are to give Church History workshops in resort towns and to write Family Business histories. One day, I hope to publish my own memoir about the ages from 15 to 25: Growing up Female in the Age of Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll. When I retire, I would like to once again turn to public service and be more active in making our world more equitable, livable, secure, and fun!
Connect with Deborah Wilbrink
Blog: Best Book Ever
Newsletter: Memoir Café
Time to Tell: Your Personal & Family History book by Deborah Wilbrink
Time to Tell: Songs About Your Family & Personal History music by Deborah Wilbrink
Pinterest: Several Boards about memoir and family history