Guest Columnist Francine Brevetti: Spinning Memories Into Gold

Francine Brevetti, a longtime journalist, writes clients’ biographies and conducts workshops teaching people how to write their own. She calls herbusiness Legend Crafter, http://www.legendcrafter.com. A San Francisco native, she worked as a business reporter for the Oakland Tribune from 1998 to 2008. She is the author of “The Fabulous Fior — over 100 Years in an Italian Kitchen,” the history of America’s oldest Italian restaurant, Fior d’Italia (http://www.fabulousfior.com/book/, available on Amazon.com). She has contributed to American, British, Australian and Asian English-language dailies, magazines and trade journals.

Imagine an individual who wants his life story written but wants no one to read it. Such was my first client as a biographer/memoirist.

While I was a business writer for the Oakland Tribune, one of my duties was to write profiles of local business owners. I chose a man who had started his business from scratch 50 years previously and built it into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. He liked my profile of him. Within a few months hired me to write his life story.

Indeed the man had a compelling tale, childhood tragedy and struggle followed by many glorious achievements. And more tragedies.
When we began this project, he did not want it shared with anyone. I signed a nondisclosure agreement. He was also not communicating with his two adult daughters with whom he had a bitter relationship.

We worked together almost weekly for over five years. His life was that large. Every time I thought we had exhausted a subject, he mentioned something that opened up a whole new channel of activity and events I hadn’t known about.

I begged him to let me find a publisher. No dice. On the fifth or sixth year of our collaboration he invited me to his mammoth birthday party. As he laced his arms around their waists, he introduced me to his two daughters.

Over the time that we had worked together, my client became looser, more relaxed, and self-accepting. He found more humor in himself. Was there a connection between our labor and his reconciliation with his daughters? I never dared ask him.

Since I left the Tribune three years ago, I have had more clients coming to me to write their life stories. I write histories of businesses as well. My slogan is, “Turning memories into legends.”
The most common reason people give for writing their autobiography/memoir is to leave a legacy for their descendents and to review their most salient memories. This is so important.
But as my experience with my clients has borne out, the unanticipated benefit is that people heal. It’s not me. It’s the process of being listened to with intense interest but without judgment. Of course it helps if your biographer is a good writer too!

Not all memoirs are tragic. Barbara Clark’s father Sidney Snow, was the founder of the Oakland Zoo. The family home was on zoo grounds. Barbara recalls with delight and vividness her experiences having lions, elephants, tigers and monkeys as her pets when she was a child.
She walked in the kitchen one day with a serpent garlanded around her neck. Her mother immediately ordered her, “Take that thing out of here.”
Memories like that are worth preserving.

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