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S1: E31 Telling Your Story with Karen Dustman

Season One:  Episode 31
Telling Your Story with Karen Dustman

Karen Dustman is a California-based journalist and author.  From home improvement to history, natural health to self-help, she's written about it during her twenty-year career.  "The best part of being a writer is I get to write about whatever I'm interested in, and I'm interested practically everything!" she laughs.

Early in her writing career, a pair of successful home improvement books landed Karen on some top television shows including Discovery Channel; the Weekend Edition of the Today Show; Good Day New York; Woman's Day TV; HGTV; and the Howie Mandel show.  Her freelance magazine articles have appeared in a wide range of national publications including Ladies' Home Journal, Family Circle, Natural Health, and Westways.

In recent years, Karen's passion for history led her to launch Clairitage Press, a small indie press devoted to preserving California/Nevada history and oral histories.  She's taught multiple classes about writing memoirs and collecting life stories.  And she just published a book called Writing a Memoir: From Stuck to Finished!: a helpful step-by-step guide to writing family history and putting life stories on paper.


Jessica:  Karen, thank you so much for talking today.

Karen:  And thank you so much for having me on, Jess.  I'm looking forward to this!

Jessica:  Me too!  Can you tell us a little bit about what led you to write your book?

Karen:  The memoir book I started writing because I really wanted to encourage people to write their own memoir and I wanted to share with them some tips that I learned along the way with doing that.  I've done a lot of oral histories.  I've helped a lot of people do their oral history and you know as you go along you learn things and I just thought, 'well, I could put this in a book and maybe help the people that I can't help one on one.  I've also done some teaching and some memoir writing classes, but again it's nice to reach out to folks in a book form that otherwise I wouldn't be able to talk to.  So I wanted to let them know that number one - that's it's really important to do this.  To write these stories down.  And number two - to give them some tips to hopefully make it easier.

Jessica:  I love the idea of taking time to learn from those around us and I believe that part of being healthy is spending time with family that we don't often see and learning from them and about them and about those who aren't with us anymore.  So how are some ways that we can get others to tell their stories?

Karen:  I so agree with you that it's so important to spend time with family.  That the one thing we can really do with them is to spend time and I think it's nice to be able to listen to them.  To listen to those stories.  In terms of getting them talking and getting them to start sharing, I think just your own attitude is huge that you want to listen and to ask them about questions that you would really like to learn about.  It's sometimes helpful to have a specific list of questions in mind that you might want to know and to prepare a little bit ahead of time, but if it's just off the cuff that's okay too.  I know I started asking questions just kind of open-ended questions because I wanted to know about family history, and like you said, the people who had gone before who aren't here anymore.  I wanted to know things like:

What were they like?
What was their life like?
Who were they?
Where did they come from?
How did they wind up in this little tiny town in Oklahoma?

I think your own willingness to listen is part of what will open up the conversation and then if you have anything specific to ask, just ask!  You know the worst thing that they could say is, "I don't really want to talk about that."

Jessica:  Do you have any questions that you can think of off the top of your head that are great starting points?

Karen:  Easy kind of conversations to have are often about those sort of objective things.  You know, the date they were born or the date that they moved to a particular town or the date that they got married.  Or their favorite foods or your Grandmother's favorite recipes.  So food is a good one.  Weather is a good one like - what was the worst storm you've ever been through?  A little bit about their background history like where they went to school.  People will usually enjoy talking about that.  Those are good introductory starting points.  And I always try to go back as far as their memory goes.  So who were your parents and when were they born?  And if they know, how did they meet each other?   Those are also really good questions.  People like to talk about how I met your father or how my parents first encountered each other.  They love those stories.  They love to tell those stories because they have a happy ending usually.  They got married.

Family get-togethers and celebrations are another really good one.  So what were your traditions around Christmas or Thanksgiving or Hanukkah?  People's families usually have some sort of a ritual or food tradition around that and that's kind of a fun thing to share and to pass down.

Jessica:  So happy memories are the easiest memories for them to share?

Karen:  Usually that's true.  Although sometimes when you get talking with someone you'll find that you open up a conversation that you didn't intend to be sad, but they will actually something more deep or more sad or tragic and it's kind of neat that they feel comfortable enough to share that with you so I try to go where the conversation takes you.  But yes, usually people find happy memories easier to talk about than really bad ones.  One exception to that might be the story of how people encountered a tragedy or near tragedy and survived it.  So how I fell through the ice and survived.  Or how I was wounded in the war and made it back to the front lines.   Sometimes those stories that people are very proud about they will enjoy sharing with you as well.

Jessica:  I know you had shared before with me about the story of my Grandpa's or your Dad's mom and how she looked at their... am I right in saying that about his mom?... just about how they were survivors.

Karen:  Yes.  One tradition that was handed down to me by my Dad - your Grandpa - was just sort of the phrase 'We're survivors' and that was something that was shared with him by his mother, I think, as a coping skill.  As a ... she went through such hard times and yet she just had this deep faith that it was all going to be okay and we were going to survive.  And he really carried that with him all of his life I think.  He had some really tough times, but the messaging that he got from his mom was it's going to be okay and we're going to survive and we're tough people.  And I think that kind of programming or messaging is really important in our lives.  Hopefully we all have somebody that strong and that supportive that would help us through the tough times that way.

Jessica:  I think there's probably a lot of, I'll say, identifiers that people would give themselves based off the stories that they share.  Like we're survivors or overcomers or you know, things like that.

Karen:  Right.  It's interesting I think in our family some of the messaging was we are creative people.  We're musical people.  And that can also be kind of, when you talk about ourselves, that can also be kind of difficult if you feel like in your own life that that message didn't fit.  Like for me we had this whole musical family, but I'm not musical.  I probably could have been.  I had the genes.  But  I didn't want to go down that path so then what do you do, you know?  So you have to think about how those messages maybe shaped who you turned out to be and in my case it was a desire to be something other than what was the programming in the family.  And hopefully it had a happy ending.  I don't know.

Jessica:  I think so.  And along that line what do you think we can learn about ourselves by writing or creating a written legacy of family history?

Karen:  Well of course we can learn about those who came before which I just think is an important history to share through the generations.  It's neat to feel connected to those who maybe we never had a chance to meet, but they become real people through stories so we learn more about who we are in terms of coming down through the generations.  We certainly learn more about messaging that we had and I think we put into perspective things that happened to us by understanding that our parents came from that context so if we felt they were tough on us or we felt they were irritable about particular things, maybe we learn a little more to help understand where they came from and that explains where we came from.  So I think it puts a lot in context and it certainly gives you great stories to share.  Some of it is just pure entertainment.  It's fun to know that, you know, we had family that came from such and such a place and that they married in a particular tradition.  It's like the 23 and Me or the DNA Genealogy.  People want to know: where do you we come from and how did we come to this place?  How did we get to where we are now?  I think it's an interesting perspective.

Jessica:  Yeah.  I agree.  So when you go to talk with a family member or interview a family member, how do you get what they're saying down on paper?  Or how do you get the things they're saying - how do you take notes about that so it's not too intimidating for them?  Or they don't feel like they're in a hot seat or something, you know?

Karen:  Well that's a really important question.  I just type really fast so my way of taking notes is to bring a small laptop and just take shorthand basically on the computer as they're talking and I find that that is much less intimidating to people if you can type fast enough to keep up with them than to actually record them.  And that works for me, but that doesn't work for everybody.  So I say if you are going to tape record them obviously ask their permission first, but if you can ask them if it's okay put the tape recorder somewhere that's just not quite in the line of sight so it's a little bit off to one side.  People tend to forget it a little more that way.

Jessica:  Do you ever just use like can you just use paper and pen or paper and pencil as well?

Karen:  I've done that as well too.  It depends on how fast you take notes of course.  I'm pretty fast and again I think everybody sort of develops their own little shorthand after a while.  That is even I think less obtrusive than typing.  So if that works for you, sure!  That's a great way to do it.

Jessica:  And as they're telling you their story is there anything we should kind of keep in mind to make sure we can get things correct chronologically or with people's names?  Things like that.  Do you ever pause to ask them for spellings of names or dates?

Karen:  Yes.  Absolutely.  I think those are both really important and even though I try not to interrupt the flow of the conversation as much as I can, I do stop to interrupt them to try to get them to put things in context, like you said, chronologically.  So one of the most frequent questions I'll ask is, "When was that?  What year was that?"  And then again if you have, like you said, if you have names that are different that you don't know how to spell, you can always stop and say, "Can you spell that?"   And they may or may not get it right, but at least you'll get something pretty close.  So I do try to get those details down, but I try to do it in a way that doesn't interrupt the flow of the story so I wait until they pause usually or I'll make a quick asterisk in my notes or something and go back and ask those questions later.

Jessica:  Once you've got these - once you have these notes down or these stories, what do we do with them?  Do we have to publish them or can we... you know, where can we store them?  What do we do with them?

Karen:  Great question and again, that's as variable as the people who are doing it.  So whatever you want.  When I did the book I tried to give tips on how you could actually turn your notes and your typed transcript into a book if that's what you want to do.  But it's important just to get it down on paper and whatever version you can, but the final thing that you do with it can always wait until later.

Claire Dale (Karen's Mother and my Grandmother)
One of the best things that I've found was 12 handwritten pages of notes my mom left and I had no idea that she'd written about her life at all.  And she wrote this really lovely series of memories that she'd never shared with me before and I happened to find them when I was going through her papers after she died.  And what a treasure that was.  And again it was nothing formal - just a yellow legal pad and some notes, but that's really special.  So if nothing else just get it down on paper and you can always decide later whether you want to try to turn it into a book or just put it in a loose leaf binder or leave it as handwritten notes.

Jessica:  If you do want to publish it or self-publish it, what are some places who do that?

Karen:  There are lots of options for self-publishing nowadays.  Amazon has a Kindle Direct Publishing (kdp publishing).  There's - Lulu has an option for that.  I've used a publisher called Book Baby.  I've used Diggypod.  So there are lots of options out there if you just google 'digital self publishing.'

You can use really fancy software like In Design, which is really made for digital publishing, but even if you don't have that available to you, even if you have your draft just in Word you can usually find a way to upload that and then make it work.

Jessica:  Anything else that I've missed asking about self-publishing or talking about, you know, as far as compiling a memoir.

Karen:  I think the biggest thing is for people to just try to identify where it is that they're stuck.  One of the other reasons that I wrote the book with the title, you know, 'From Stuck to Finished,' is that I kept hearing from people that they'd start a memoir, but somewhere along the line they felt like they got stuck and they couldn't finish it and I gave some tips in the book for how to deal with that.  But the biggest thing is just to try to identify what is it that's the sticking point for you.  Is it that you don't know what you want to say next?  Is it that you've hit a hard part in the story and you just need to skip that and go on to the next part?  But try to identify what it is that's holding you up and then find a work around.  Tell yourself you're actually gonna schedule some time to deal with this issue and keep going because, again, it's just so important to actually get to that finish point so that you actually have something to share with your family.

Jessica:  Do you think part of it is because we want to get these stories, but we're not sure how to put them altogether or how to compile them?  Like do we have to compile the stories chronologically?  Or could we do them based on subject or based on, you know, different moments in their lives?

Karen:  I think that organizational question is actually one of the biggest things that people get stuck over.  How do I organize this?  I have all these stories in my head - how should I attack it?  I try to tell people, 'well, start with a story that you really want to tell.  Any story.  Start anywhere chronologically.  And get a three ring binder.  Punch holes in it and put it in there.  You can always rearrange it later.  And tell the stories as you want to tell the stories.  Again, it's as individual as you are.

1)  So you can tell them by sheer year (chronologically): I went to grade school.  I went to high school.
2) Or you can tell them based on subjects:  I lived here in this place and then I lived in that place.
3) Or by food topics:  I went to this dinner party and then I went to that dinner party.

I mean you can organize it anyway that you want to organize it, but most people find, I think it works best, to talk about stories or vignettes is a good word, one little thing that you remember and that you really want to get down.  And then think of another one.  Think of another topic that you want to write about it.  The point is what do you want to share and then you can organize it in whatever way you want later.

Jessica:  One thing we didn't talk about was photographs and how... so can you talk to us about how we can use photographs to really bring out memories and stories?

Karen:  Photographs are a great tool especially if you're feeling really stuck because if you go back through that box of photos or the old photo album, you're gonna have one picture that draws your eye.  There's gonna be one thing somewhere that you latch onto emotionally and if you take that picture, that's a great prompt in itself to tell a story.  And what's really fun in memoir books, if you're doing a family history or a life history, is to include that picture and then the text about it.  So find something that attracts you and you'll remember all kinds of things that happened that you don't even remember now when you open that box of old photos.  So photos are a great prompt.  They're also a great prompt when you're dealing with an older person in your life so a father, a mother, grandparent. If you can get them to sit down with you and go through old pictures, it will bring all kinds of stories to life that you wouldn't get if you just go in cold.

Sometimes the background in the picture can also prompt a story so 'this picture was taken in my home town and this was the school in the background or this was the store where we used to go shopping all the time.'  So the background can be almost surprisingly as important as the foreground sometimes.  Plus it gives the context for the picture and for the story.

Jessica:  Yeah.  What about, I mean being a music teacher I guess, I wonder does music prompt stories?  You know or would you have to find out, you know, what music they listened to and then could that bring about memories as well?

Karen:  I think for a lot of people music goes right to memory so that's a great tip.  I've never thought of using that, but I would imagine if you had somebody who grew up with roaring 20s music playing in the background, I would betcha that would prompt a story if you put on some of that or the 40s big band music.  There's got to be a lot of memories associated with that.  Or the 80s music.  That would be a great fun thing to try!

Jessica:  I just wasn't sure if you'd have to first of all know or ask about what music they grew up listening to or if you'd have to know a little bit about what they listen to and then play that music to see if more came of it.  I don't know.  Just something I was thinking!

Karen:  That would be a fun thing to try actually.  One thing that I do do in my memoir classes is I'll bring old magazines and pass them around.  And old advertisements.  The old beauty products.  The hairstyles for women.  The clothing styles for men.  Those always get stories.  I had - I very recently did one and I couldn't get them to pass the magazine on to the next people when it was going around the room because they all wanted to hang on to the magazine and look at it and turn the pages.  But those are really helpful because they bring the popular culture of the day back to life and you remember 'oh this is the way it was' and the ruby red lipstick or the poodle skirt or whatever it was.  People will start talking about 'oh I had a dress just like that.'  And it's fun to use those as clips in your  family history as well.  You can crop them and put them in as an image and that's kind of neat.

Jessica:  And where do you get the old magazines?  Do you go to like flea markets or vintage stores?

Karen:  So vintage stores used to have a lot of that kind of material, but anymore I think a lot of it is wound up online so for me the best place to get old magazines is Ebay.  I love Ebay.  They have wonderful stuff.  And actually that's a good tip too.  If you're going to be talking with somebody and you don't know a lot about their history in particular, you might just from their age just pick a magazine that's about the time that they were a young person, order a copy of one of those from Ebay, and bring that with you when you go to talk with them.  Especially if there's a lull in the conversation, get them to look through the magazine and see if that prompts any stories.

Jessica:  Being that I love hearing our family stories, I'm going to change the final questions from what they typically are to ones about, you know, your memories and your family memories.  Well, one of the first ways that you got into this was really learning about your Aunt Ruth.  And so I would love to know, you know, kind of twofold: how you got to be close to her by hearing her stories and also just what one of your favorite stories about your time with her or your mom or your dad.  And you know, I guess it's really four fold.  There's like four things I'm asking.

Karen:  So how I got interested in doing this was I was interested in learning about the family history and I thought I would call my Aunt Ruth who was the oldest living member of the family at the time. And I got her on the phone and we shared some stories about my grandparents.  And we had such a good time on the phone that at the end of the conversation I said, "Wow - would you mind if I called you next weekend to hear some more stories?"  And she was excited.  I think she was excited to share family history with someone who was interested.  So she said, "Sure!  Call me back next week."  And pretty soon we were having a regular phone conversation.  Wednesdays became Aunt Ruth Days for me.  And luckily I type really fast and she talked really slow so I was recording what she said as she talked on my computer.  I was typing it up so I'd have those stories to refer to later.  And I have this wonderful series of memories in her voice that I just treasure.  So that was how I first got interested in recording family stories and family histories.

And then I got my dad to tell a few stories and I wrote those down.  His brother told me a story or two.  And I never had the chance to get my mom's story down which was really sad.  So when she died she was only 74.  Nobody expects to lose their mom at 74.  So that was part of what brought home to me how important it is to get those stories while you can and to get them down on paper and to now assume you're always going to have more time because sometimes you don't have that time.

So I went from there to trying to help record some oral histories of folks who were locally important where I live.  They were old timers and they had memories about hunting and trapping and mining and other things that were kind of a part of life that was going away and through the local museum I worked with them to record their stories so that's how I got into it.

Jessica:  I love that.  I love...

Karen:  You asked some...

Jessica:  I know I asked several.  The other one was if you have a favorite story that Aunt Ruth had shared with you.

Ruth on the DA-Cat
Karen:  I think my favorite story about Aunt Ruth was the story of her going to live in the mining camp up in the mountains in Idaho.  And I think I sent you the photo of her on a DA-Cat.  I love that photo.  It just captures the kind of woman that she was.  She was a very prim and proper woman in many ways.  She always wore heels till the day she died and even in the grocery store, she'd be having her little heels on, but she went to work.  She married a man and she went to work cooking for this mining camp way up in the mountains in Idaho and she talked about cooking on a stove with the rain coming through the roof and hitting the griddle and mixing with her tears.  She was not happy at all.  And she just decided to buck up and she was going to make the best of it.  And she went on to have a great life and a great career.  She would up selling mutual funds and becoming one of the few women salespeople for the company back in the 1950's and 60's.  And supporting her family and she was just an amazing gal so the idea of her up in this mining camp I just love.  She was going to make it work and she did.

Jessica:  And I think, but I can't remember if you mentioned this, but she had been living in Oklahoma and then he had kind of, I'll say summoned her, but like asked her to marry him and then she took the train by herself, right?

Karen:  Right!  Yes, she had known him in high school.  I don't think they had been particularly close in high school, but he went off to the wilds of Idaho and got a job with this mining company or an interest in the mining company.  And he wrote her a letter and he said, 'will you come out and marry me?'  And she said, 'Sure!  I don't have much going on in Oklahoma.  Sounds like a better deal than staying here.'  So she took the Portland Rose cross country and then went out to meet him.  And the funny part of the story was he met her at the train and he didn't have anything set up for a wedding.  There'd been no arrangements.  There'd been no pastor.  Nothing.  So she would up contacting the preacher and getting it all set up and they were in fact married.  And the preacher turned to her and said - put his hand out like 'well, where's my money?' and she had to pay him $5 or whatever and his comment was, "Hope you get your money back, lady."

Jessica:  Oh!  (laughter)  Hope you get your money back!

Karen:  Oh.  So anyways I love family stories like that.

Jessica:  Yes.  So what is one of your best memories from your childhood?

Karen (left) with sister Lesley sitting on her mom's lap
Karen:  So I have lots of great memories.  One of my favorite ones was making cookies with my sister - your mom.  And we used to  - we were cookie hounds I guess.  We liked the sugar.  And we got so good at making cookies that we got to the point where we tried to make up our own recipes.  We knew the basics:  eggs and sugar and flour and baking powder and baking soda.  So we would try to compile new recipes of our own.  And one day we decided we were going to make cookies using available materials and what was available at the time was some lemon lime soda in the fridge.  So we tried making lemon lime cookies and they were just awful.  Hard to believe that cookies could be bad, but those were not really very edible.  But that was one of my happy memories.

Jessica:  I love that.  And what's something you've learned about yourself as you've learned the stories of your family?

Karen:  Well, I've learned that I'm a survivor.  I come by that honestly.  It came down through the genes.  I think I've learned where some of the traits that I have now come from which is really interesting.  Like, we've talked about this before, I'm a list maker and it never really occurred to me much, but I'm really confident looking back that that was a trait that was passed on by my mom because she always had lists.  There was always this little laundry list or grocery list sitting on the end of the counter and she would make notes about anything and everything.  It wasn't just the groceries she was going to buy the next time she was going to the store.  She'd make a note about somebody she was supposed to call or some idea that she had about saving the world and I'm very much the same way.  I think I learned to organize myself with lists and it's been actually a very helpful thing in my life and it's neat to see that that came from my family.  These were things they didn't need to teach, but they did and we're richer for it.

Jessica:  Yeah.  Where can listeners find your work or get in touch with you?

Karen:  Well, my book Writing a Memoir: From Stuck to Finished is available on Amazon and there's a kindle version and a paperback.  And I have a website that's  It's my mother's name Claire and the word heritage kind of put together.  And there's a blog on there and you can also contact me through the website.  And I'd love to hear from people about their memoirs and what they're working on.  I also started a Facebook page - @WriteYourMemoir - so I hope people will reach out and post their questions or reach out on that and I'd love to hear how people are doing?

Jessica:  And you also do a free memoir writers' newsletter!

Karen:  I do!  It comes out about once a month roughly and I try to include tips and suggestions and images that I hope will inspire people to get creative and keep writing about that memoir.  Really take it from stuck to finished 'cause it's that finish that's so important.

Jessica:  Karen, I loved this.  We need to do this more often and talk about more family stories and look through the photographs.  That would be so fun.  I appreciate you doing this!

Karen:  I so appreciate you, Jessica.  I love the family connection with you;  that means so much to me!


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