‘Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilisation, so society, no future’– Elie Wiesel.
Story Terrace can transform your memories into a professionally written book. Your life story will be recorded by an experienced writer, to be preserved and passed down for generations.
We caught up with one of Story Terrace’s ghost-writers, Rebecca Coxon, to ask what it’s like writing other people’s life stories for a living. Rebecca has worked as a journalist and currently makes BBC documentaries as well working as a biographer.
- Why do you feel it is important to capture your life story in a book?
If we don’t take time to document something then it can be lost forever. In my guest blog for Story Terrace I wrote about my own grandmother and how I never heard any of her stories. I learned the most about her life at her funeral, and that’s a sad realisation. Unfortunately, when people die often their stories go with them. Unless you write a diary regularly, it’s rare for our stories and conversations and anecdotes to be documented. We all have interesting stories, and most of us are dying to tell them. Talking is often the easiest way of recalling our past, so an informal interview with a professional writer feels like a natural way to document these stories. This evolves into a beautiful hard-bound book that you can cherish forever and pass onto your grandchildren. It’s a wonderful gift or retirement present for yourself or others.
- What can Story Terrace offer that’s different from other ghost-writing services?
Story Terrace prides itself on its personal approach. The client is presented with a shortlist of writers recommended by the Story Terrace team, who have been carefully selected to match experience and interests. Story Terrace knows each writer personally, and each writer gets to know their client personally. They are not a randomly assigned individual behind a computer screen. In fact, the very reason Story Terrace has its name is because we hope for the anecdotes to flow like they would with family and friends on a summer’s afternoon on a terrace. The writers work very closely with clients to make sure their story is expertly crafted and personal, which makes us unique and different to other ghost-writing services.
- Could you give us a quick summary of your writing process?
Once I have interviewed the client the first time, together we create a list of chapter headings. This helps to give a clearer idea of the narrative structure and themes we both feel are best for the book. For me, I find there is lots of information to deal with at first and so it’s about filing it down to the most basic themes and the core stories we want to tell, and slowly elaborating from then on. Of course, it’s impossible to tell every story, so together we select the best ones. Some clients prefer more of a chronological approach to their entire life story, while some clients want their book to be about a significant period of time or event in their lives, perhaps only a few months or years.
- Do you have your own style for writing life stories?
Personally, I like to start chapters with metaphors and analogies, as it’s a way of drawing a reader in and painting a vivid picture, while acting as a microscope for the wider theme of the chapter. After a second, more in-depth interview I crack on with the bulk of the writing. I will often write in a stream of consciousness way and then refine later on. The first draft is then sent to the client who gives feedback. The feedback shapes the second draft and then the entire book is overseen by an editor who carefully proof-reads. Next the client is asked to send over any photographs they would like included in the book and a front cover is chosen and illustrated. Finally the book is printed (as many copies as the client would like) and presented to the client.
- How do you ensure that you accurately reflect your client’s voice?
When interviewing I write down specific words and phrases that the client uses so that when it comes to writing the book, I can use their own words as much as possible. The task after that is crafting the stories into a structured narrative (free-flowing speech is rarely very structured!) and allowing myself to take a bit of creative license while keeping everything factually accurate. It’s definitely a balance. Often clients hire a ghost-writer because they don’t feel they have strong enough writing skills themselves, or they simply don’t know which of their stories are interesting enough to write down or need help digging them out of their memory and lifting them back up to the surface, so in these instances having a writer to help you is extremely beneficial.
It’s impossible to reflect a client’s voice exactly, and this is something we have to manage in terms of our client’s expectations. However we try our best to get as close as we can and have had many happy customers so far. All of us writers have a love of writing, a passion for storytelling and often years of experience crafting narratives. I think most clients appreciate that and so a relationship of trust is established. And it’s always reassuring to know that in the end the client always has the final say, so there should be no surprises with the final product!
- What do you enjoy the most about writing for Story Terrace?
I love writing; it doesn’t feel like a job. I am a naturally curious person so have always asked questions and travelled a lot. I get excited learning about people, other cultures, experiences that are similar and wildly different from my own. Life is fascinating and I’m eager to open my mind learn as much as I can. I find one of the best way of doing this is having meaningful conversations with people and sharing perspectives.
I’m a documentary-maker in my day job, so I am used to interviewing all sorts of people and not knowing quite where we’ll end up. Biography writing is very similar; both require sensitivity, sociability, and empathy. You are in a trusted position to tell personal and intimate stories about strangers, which is not something I take lightly. It’s something I always feel very privileged to be a part of.
- You must have come across some pretty interesting stories in your time- could you give an example of a story that has truly touched you?
Human resilience is something that never ceases to impress me. I am currently writing a book about a client who was diagnosed with cancer just 5 months after the birth of her son. She is a remarkable, positive, inspiring person and despite her on-going medical issues, she lives each day with more energy and vitality than most people. She has transformed her illness into a positive force for inspiring other people to look after their bodies and minds through healthy eating and exercise, empowering people to strive for healthy bodies rather than ‘thigh gaps’.
Additionally, the last book I wrote was with Ichko, a mother of two. She was one of the first generation post-Soviet Communist Mongolians to leave and emigrate to the West. As a young woman she arrived in the UK not speaking English or understanding the culture. She faced incredible adversity, which eventually left her feeling suicidal. After a spiritual awakening she began to feel purpose again and it changed her life. It’s hard not to be touched by stories like this.