In a recent essay in the New York Times, the memoirist William Novak writes about the challenges and rewards of writing books for a small, private audience, “writing books very few will read.” While Novak typically writes about famous people for a commercial audience (think Magic Johnson & Nancy Reagan,) he was recently hired to write private memoirs that would only be read by close family members.
I found myself relating on many levels. Novak writes of the inspiration he gets from listening to other’s stories (definitely one of my favorite aspects of my job.) He writes of the freedom from “structural consistency” that private books allow him (as a book designer, I love the freedom I have to create an original format that tells each client’s unique story.) He writes of the value of these private books, measured in the family’s joy, not in the number of books sold.
Novak notes one challenge that I found particularly relevant – he writes, “I can’t show my past work to potential clients because private books are, by definition, confidential.” Indeed, this is a challenge in presenting a portfolio of my work. I am not able to show all of my work or list all of my clients by name.
As a personal historian, I am honored to be invited into the lives of my clients, and it is incredibly important for me to respect a client’s privacy and ensure that they feel comfortable throughout the storytelling process. Many clients choose to keep their stories private because they hold positions in very public industries, including law, finance, and the art world. While this may not enrich my portfolio, the reward for me is in being able to provide a unique and fulfilling experience of reflection and legacy preservation.
Over the next few months, I will be finishing several projects for high profile clients. I will present excerpts in my portfolio only after conferring with each client to find a solution that feels right. These storytellers have great words of wisdom, and I hope to be able to share some inspiration!