Follow my blog for memoir writers at True Stories Well Told

Published on November 27, 2013, by in Uncategorized.

71559675I  post at least weekly on True Stories Well Told, my blog for people who read and write about real life. Meet me over there for fresh news, views, and examples from memoirists I meet through my writing classes and online research.

If you are in Madison, I invite you to drop by my monthly memoir writers’ salon and get to know others who share your interest in writing about your life.

“First Monday, First Person”–A Free Memoir Writers’ Monthly Salon

First Monday of every month excluding holidays,  6pm – 7:45pm
Goodman South Madison Branch Library, 2222 S Park St, Madison, WI

Sign up on arrival to read on a first-come, first-served basis, and receive group feedback. Listeners welcome as well as readers.


Preserving our digital personal history

Published on December 5, 2015, by in Uncategorized.

Follow this link to listen along as John Meadows, Canadian podcaster, interviews me about what personal history is, and why it is so important to preserve.


A thought on age and happiness from David Brooks


brooks-circular-thumbLarge-v3New York Times Op Ed columnist David Brooks is one of those  people I love to hate, and occasionally hate to love. I fell for his mind back in the ’90s when I read his book Bobos in Paradise — he soooo “got me” as a Baby Boomer. Then I began to see how so much of his thinking came from a place of smug elitism that I felt embarrassed for us both. And yet. He has a nimble, well-furnished mind, and he occasionally still “gets me” — especially why I am so interested in working with older people to help them write and share their life stories.

This week he published a column about the satisfactions of late life. In “Why Elders Smile”  he riffs on research about happiness, describing a “U-Curve” that shows people rating themselves as happy in their 20s, then dipping toward unhappiness, bottoming out around age 50, and rising again to hit their happiest point between the ages of 82 and 85.

He writes,”My problem with a lot of the research on happiness in old age is that it is so deterministic. I’d rather think of happiness as an accomplishment, not a condition, that people get better at living through effort, by mastering specific skills. I’d like to think people get steadily better at handling life’s challenges…in old age, they have more control over the challenges they will tackle and they get even better at addressing them.”

After paragraphs of typical Brooksian musing, connecting psychological research to his own foregone conclusions (perfect example of why he annoys me), he comes down to the closing point that made me want to share.

“It’s comforting to know that, for many, life gets happier with age. But it’s more useful to know how individuals get better at doing the things they do. The point of culture is to spread that wisdom from old to young: to put the thousand-year-heart in a still young body.”

Think about it. Isn’t that a call to action, to write and share your memoir, to spread your wisdom to your young?


Atlantic Magazine article: What Kids Learn From Hearing Family Stories

Published on December 15, 2013, by in Uncategorized.

“Reading to children has education benefits, of course—but so does sharing tales from the past” writes Elaine Reese in the December 2013 issue of the Atlantic Magazine.

Follow this link to read new evidence why this holiday, you should share stories about your family’s successes and challenges–and the resiliency with which you lived through them.

Read “What Kids Learn From Hearing Family Stories” here!


Not sure why you’d write your family’s history? Read this.

“The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative,” wrote Bruce Feiler in a recent New York Times article.

Recent research has brought new breakthroughs in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, work more effectively. Feiler cited research from Marshall Duke, psychologist at Emory University, showing that children who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges. With his colleagues, he went on to develop a measure called the “Do You Know” scale*, which asked children questions about their families. They found that the more children knew about their family’s history, the better their emotional health, happiness, and resilience.

Fascinated by Feiler’s report, I went googling to find more about Duke’s research and the “Do You Know” scale. This led me to work by Duke and his colleagues Robyn Fivush and Jennifer Bohanek on the power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being.

The White Family, Amish Acres campground, Indiana, 1973

The White Family, Amish Acres campground, Indiana, 1973.

I discovered that not only is knowledge of family history beneficial for young children–it plays an active role in formation of adolescent identity.

“…awareness of the ways in which one’s parents or grandparents dealt in the past with the sorts of challenges facing an adolescent in the present can be beneficial in learning to adjust to the stresses and demands of the teen years…Such awarness need not be focused only on successes, but on failures as well. Knowing, for example, that one’s parent made some foolish mistakes during adolscence can certainly help a young teenager avoid those same mistakes,” wrote Duke et al in a 2010 paper in the Journal of Family Life.

Older family members are the primary source of family information–not just about their own lives, but as caretakers of the extended family narrative reaching back generations.

According to the research, the most helpful history for young people is what Duke labeled “the oscillating family narrative”–a story of ups and downs, successes and setbacks, that conveys, “no matter what happens, we always stick together as a family.” This builds children’s sense of a strong “intergenerational self”–knowledge that we belong to something bigger than ourselves.

And that is why you should write your family’s history.

*Why not start by writing the answers to the “Do You Know” questionnaire?  You’ll find them in this Huffington Post article.




This Holiday, Save the Stories!

Published on December 18, 2012, by in Commentary.
Jean-Flosh Christmas 1960ish

My favorite aunt smokes and reads a Christmas letter while my mother plays her new recorder (a gift from my father that I immediately claimed as my own–and still treasure.)

When I recently came across this photo, I was reminded how important it is to save the stories behind the treasures and traditions of our favorite holidays. No matter whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Chinese New Year, or Winter Solstice, you’ll soon be with family. Now’s your opportunity to create fun activities that bring generations together around your shared heritage. Here are a few ideas for activities for every different age group.

For young children:

  • Invite children to play Family History Detective — give them a set of clues like “which uncle knows how to drive a tractor and why?” – have a prize for the first / most right answers. Phrase your questions as answers and you can make this a Family Jeopardy game!
  • Tell the “Stories Behind the Stuff” — as you bring out the oranments and decorations, talk about the stories behind them. (Click here to read a recent New York Times essay expanding on this idea.)
  • Turn on an audio or video recorder (even a smartphone will do), then ask the children what they know about their names. Who’s named after who, and why? Are there names that have been handed down in the family? Capture the storytelling that comes out as your family explores “the name game.”

For older children and teens:

  • Make a Family Holiday Photobook. Gather  holiday photos through the years, then using a website like Shutterfly , upload them and write captions that tell a story about the people or the occasions in the picture. Order copies for each branch of the family. Be sure to name the people & guess at dates. Have fun looking for family resemblance between the generations.
  • For kids who like multimedia projects, use Powerpoint or a website like Animoto to turn photos and video clips into a presentation.

For any age:

  • Make a family time capsule. Gather items that capture your family today, like photos and video or audio recordings. plus a current local newspaper and map.
  • Write down the menu for the holiday feast plus a few recipes for those dishes.
  • Fill out the following questionnaire and add it to your time capsule.
  • Put your collected items in a box or sealed container and label with a date to open it — next holiday, or 5, 10, 25  years from now? If you have family members who can’t join the gathering, send them a family time capsule too!

I was recently interviewed by Carol Koby on her “All About Living” radio show about celebrating family history at the holidays–click here to listen.

-Sarah White



Occasion: _____________________________________________________________

Completed by: _________________________________________________ Date: ______________

1. Where are you today? Why? Describe the scene.

2. Who is with you today? How are they related to you?

3. Who is the oldest person present? Who is the youngest? How are they related?

4. Where did everyone travel from?

5. Who is absent, but present in your thoughts? Why?

6. Who is cooking today? Whose recipes will be used? Which foods are your favorites?

7. What is the holiday meal like? Use your 5 senses as you describe it. (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch)

8. What activities will you do / have you done today?

9. Do you have traditions you repeat every year at this time? What are they?

10. What do you like best about this celebration?

11. How has this celebration changed over time?

12. What stories did you hear? Who told them?


Join me for “Writing Your Family History”: A Wisconsin Historical Society Workshop

1 morning, Saturday December 15, 9:00-noon, Memorial Library Room 126, Library Mall, UW-Madison Campus.

Are you ready to write your family history? This class will show you how to prepare, how to write family history, and the various levels of family history projects that will share your hard research work with your family and friends. Presented by Wisconsin Historical Society’s Reference Librarian Lori Bessler with guest lecturer Sarah White.

Fees: $25 for WHS or WSGS members, $30 for non-members. To register, click here.

Sarah White at the Wisconsin Historical Society Reading Room


“This Holiday, Save the Stories” — a Family History Workshop

10-11:15, Saturday December 8th, Bolz A, Goodman Community Center

Holiday gatherings bring out family stories. And it’s important to save those stories, because your memories are a gift to the future. Children need the stories that bring to life family history, traits and values. Writing those stories down connects extended families across time and space.

But how to get started? Come to this workshop to learn practical tips to nurture your family ties through stories. Refreshments and instructional materials provided.

Christmas 1959ish

That’s me in the photo at left, with my mother and brothers David and Andy, circa 1959.

Suggested donation $10, $5 for additional family members—Proceeds benefit for the Goodman Community Center.  No advance registration.


Ron Hoppmann wins Madison Magazine Memoir Contest

Published on November 20, 2012, by in Contest.


Ron Hoppmann in front of the family’s home at 1418 Northern Court on Madison’s East Side, about 1945.

Madison Magazine Memoir Contest Winner Ron Hoppmann was born on Madison’s east side in 1934. He attended Marquette Elementary School and East High School. Ron spent three years active duty in the Marine Corps and went to college in Colorado. Ron says, “I write because I have no choice in the matter.” Since retiring he often writes with the Meadowood Life Story Writers, an outreach effort of the Madison School & Community Recreation (MSCR) Department. The memoir he plans to complete with Sarah White will be (in his words) “a humble jumble of scatter-brained writings” about his childhood as one of 11 children raised by a divorced mother during the Depression and World War II.

Now retired, Ron was the owner of Bord & Stol furniture in Madison. He is a father of three and grandfather of seven.

Ron’s writing has been published in two anthologies by Meadowood Life Story Writers in 2011 and 2012 and in Julien’s Journal: The Dubuque Area Lifestyle Magazine in August 2011.


Madison Magazine Contest now closed. Next step: select a winner.

Published on November 2, 2012, by in Contest.

Fifty-one entries! That’s how many my Memoir Contest with Madison Magazine drew! The contest closed at midnight 10/31/12. Reading entries now… so many so good, it will be hard to choose…

Our judges panel meets 11/12. Shortly after that, the winner will be announced. In the meantime, follow our progress on my blog with Madison Magazine, “From Memory to Memoir.”

I’ll be blogging about the process as the winner and I work together, with lots of tips for those of you who’d like to work on your own memoir.

Not every great story can be a winner, so I’ll also share some of the other sketches entered in the contest with you on the “From Memory to Memoir” blog.

Follow along and watch a composite portrait of Madison take shape!


Sarah White teaching a memoir class at Madison’s Westside Senior Center




© First Person Productions