Rachael Rifkin (lifestoriestoday.wordpress.com) works in print and has been a member of APH since the fall of 2009. She started out as a journalist and began calling herself a memoirist in late 2008 because she didn’t yet know the term personal historian. She loves people’s stories and is very happy to have found work that she is passionate about.
Rachael is a lifelong Southern Californian, minus brief stays in Northern California, New York and the Netherlands. She’s quite partial to reading, knitting, juggling, playing with her dogs, and laughing with her husband. Much to her great disappointment, and despite fervent practice, she cannot whistle. She’s also short. Furthermore, she is not especially good at writing short biographical sketches about herself and would rather not discuss how long this took her to write.
During my senior year of high school, Slaughterhouse Five reminded me that I could enjoy reading, and an extra credit assignment showed me what I could do with written words. We had just read Camus’ The Stranger, and for extra credit we could write a short story written in his style.
I liked Camus’ book and thought I’d give the assignment a try. As my mom drove me home that day, a story began to take shape. I could see all the edges around the story, and repeated them to myself until I got home. It took another day or two to fill everything in. I had only ever written stories for school assignments but this felt like I had written it for myself. I read it over and over and over. I…liked it. And so did my teacher. And so did other teachers she showed it to.
I continued to write. My friend and I wrote a silly, quirky story and anonymously left copies on all the seniors’ cars. People liked it, including a couple of teachers who had gotten a hold of a copy. My friend and I also decided to create our own “best of” list for our senior class. I had a lot of fun with that one. Some of the categories included “Worst Middle Name,” “Most Likely to be Offended if He is Left Off or on the List,” and “People Who are Surprisingly Hot Now.” This time my friend and I passed out copies with our names on it.
By the time I arrived at college, I was excited to find an intermediate creative writing class that wasn’t already filled up. You had to try out for it to get in. I provided the teacher with a couple of samples and a couple of days later my name was on the list of people accepted into the class.
I had no idea how to translate writing into a career though. How did writers make a living? Should I shoot for that great American novel thing? Could you be considered a “real” writer unless you did that? The odds of writing the great American novel seemed astronomical, especially to the people who asked me what I was going to do with a degree in literature.
“I’m not interested in writing the next great American novel. I’m going to write romance novels,” I retorted once. “It’s quick to write and you can make a lot of money.” Ha, I thought. Bet he didn’t expect that.
After a moment of thought the question asker said, “I guess you could teach literature.”
I got an internship at a newspaper after my sophomore year at college and that seemed to fit well enough. It could lead to a good job, right? Turns out journalism wasn’t ever going to be anything but good enough. It satisfied my curiosity—I was always learning new things—but I didn’t disappear into it the way I wanted to. When I’m passionate about something, my thoughts are focused and I radiate with little bubbles of energy and excitement. As time went on, I found that when I was assigned to write a profile of someone, I came close to being that passionate person again.
I especially enjoyed writing a profile about a dentist who had just retired.
“What are you going to be doing in your spare time now?” I asked.
“Well, I like to take underwater pictures of sea life. Let me show you.”
He led me to a hallway covered in pictures of fish and plants and deep, deep blue water. He described each picture, telling me where he had been and what he had wanted to capture. He was so enveloped in this new world, and I, in turn, was mesmerized by his enthusiasm and joy.
Around the same time, my grandfather passed away and a manuscript resurfaced. I had heard about the letters he wrote to my grandmother while he was stationed as a medic in Korea and Japan during the Korean War, but had never read them. He had revised the thousand page manuscript slowly over the years in the hopes of getting it published. He never did.
I wish I could tell him how much I love it. How wonderful it was to be able to get to know him as a 27-year-old, which was just about the same age I was when I first read it. It was like traveling in a time machine and looking in a mirror all at the same time; it was nothing short of magic.
From then on I only wanted to concentrate on helping other people write their life stories. But once again, I didn’t know how to start. I didn’t even know if what I wanted to do was a true profession. Not quite a biographer, not quite a ghost writer. Hmm…what did Google have to say about this?
Personal history, personal historian. “A personal historian helps bring others’ memories to life by helping them tell their stories in their own words” So it was a profession! I finally knew what to call myself. I was a personal historian.
My career path used to surprise me. I kind of fell into writing and then journalism. Becoming a personal historian was different–it was a deliberate and carefully considered choice. Now I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. No more uncertainty, no more “good enoughs.” I’m completely enveloped in this new world of mine.