Private Memoirs for Prominent Families
I live mostly off the radar, focusing on my family and on a very small, very select group of clients.
But when people ask what I do for a living, I tell them:
I create private memoirs for prominent families.
Private. The audience is just the rest of the family, with an occasional request to do a second edit for friends or supporters.
Memoirs. Life stories. The initial project is usually a grandparent submitting to their kids' request to talk about their journey. Over time, my small team and I have developed a variety of additional options to help other family members share their own wisdom, insights, plans and permissions. We've also come up with things like books of family proverbs, annual reports, and family meeting experiences to capture a group stories in ways the family can continue to engage across generations.
Prominent. Most of the time this means affluent, but sometimes it can mean famous or well-known without as much cash. If you are somebody other people talk about because you are generally noteworthy in their eyes, you're prominent. And prominence tends to come with a variety of tricky performance pressures that bait your family for traps and a lot of soul-warping pain that can become major impediments to the trajectory of your family line.
Families. Some of my clients count as celebrities, but my focus isn't on individuals. I focus on how families align around certain values, absorb and accommodate various wounds, and push forward into the world together.
The typical engagement.
The cute way of describing my bullseye client fit is "Christians with airplanes." My rates are high, but they're high because I think I'm supposed to be serving people who live with the burdens of affluence, and those rates keep me more available when families who really need me show up. Affluence is the first filter. The Christian part is a valued bonus because it provides important common footing for some of the more difficult terrain we cover together.
The first family member with whom I typically speak is a G2 or G3 man in his 40s who's interested in capturing the spiritual DNA of his father to pass to his children. His wife and his mother are almost always ahead of him in terms of interest and hopes for what an engagement can produce. Generally speaking, his father would never consider this sort of project, and tends to submit to the honor as a way of showing love to the son/children who request it. Reluctance is a good sign here ... it usually means there's a story worth sharing, and a person with a character worth celebrating.
Depending on what makes the best sense for the family, production involves a variety of interview options with the principal, family members, and various people who can shed light on the principal. I send light homework ahead of time, mostly to give the person being interviewed a sense of control and readiness, but we go where the story takes us once we're face to face. I usually speak with friends and professional associates for a few hours each, family members for closer to a full day, and with the principal for two or three days on the main effort, as well as several follow up conversations. The goal is to create a book that can live between the family photo album and the record of newspaper clippings ... we're not necessarily going for a robust chronicle so much as we're looking for the important moments, threads, wounds, questions, and themes of the people involved.
The process, from start to finished book, takes between six months and a year unless there are extenuating circumstances that urge us to alter that timeline.
Watching for the talisman.
Remember the National Geographic photo of the Afghan woman with the green eyes? I'm convinced that if a great photographer followed any of us through our entire life, there would be a moment where a similar shot of us could capture the key to what makes us who and how we are. And if we could share that photo, that key, that talisman, with the people we love, we'd make sense to them. And so would our lives and our love and the blessings we so often fumble as we speak them.
When I listen to my clients, I'm listening for that moment. The brick that was placed a bit out of line and made the resulting wall the way it is. The big life lesson or adventure that shaped the person and their legacy. The vow or the blessing. The wound or the victory. That moment becomes the theme around which the rest of the story turns.
But it's familiar to the family. Normal. Even often a stubborn and confusing annoyance nobody thinks much about anymore. I help my clients find it, hold it up, walk around it, and then figure out what to do with it. That's part of where my bear footprint logo and topographic map stuff comes from. I've been that person - the one who goes into the cave to draw out the beautiful thing - my whole life, in all sorts of settings both personal and especially corporate.
The response when we pull the beautiful thing into the light is usually a celebration because even when it's a dark discovery, the sorts of families who engage this work are more than capable (more than they even know) of making something brilliant and life-giving from it. I'll give you examples when we talk.
The real vision.
I started off saying that when people ask what I do for a living, I tell them I create private memoirs for prominent families. That's true because it's the easiest way to understand the first product. It's the closest to something people have heard of before. But here's where I really want to see things go, and where they have gone in some instances. My goal is to build 30-year, 4-generation relationships with entire families, and to help those families share and own their "last name" values while delighting in their various "first name" expressions of those values as part of a larger amazing story.
My role, in that sense, is part storyteller, part master of ceremonies, definitely part translator, and in many ways part family priest. When we talk, if you want to hear more about this, let me know. Otherwise, it will come up on its own later.
When that son in his 40s calls about capturing his dad's story because he wants to honor his father while leading his children, what he's really looking for is a multigenerational sense of story, belonging, translation, direction, and meaning. He's looking for trajectory. So am I.
In the end, all we can really offer one another are our prayers and our testimonies. We can offer our love and wisdom loosely, and we can share our stories for context. I think we all know, deep down, how important our prayers and our stories are. What I think most of us struggle to do is actually get traction there.
That's what I do for a living.
I earned my English degree from Indiana University, with a focus on Victorian Literature because I've always had a vision for romanticizing and adding adventure back into the lives of people who have the option of choosing comfort and hiding (and subsequent lives of quiet despair).
I've been a copywriter for the world's three largest ad agency conglomerates: Omnicom (McCann-Erickson), WPP (J. Walter Thompson), and Publicis.
As a young man suddenly disillusioned by the inherently immoral nature of most advertising efforts, I burned my portfolio and fled to Denver, where I spent five years divided between seminary, various ministry endeavors, and playing the role of executive director as I helped resuscitate a now thriving non-profit organization.
I also spent two years as perhaps the worst Cisco certified network engineer to ever conjure nightmares of router code.
I returned to copywriting when I realized the problem wasn't the industry, but the way people engage the industry. When I take on an occasional branding project today, I work from a set of basic rules that govern the stories I'll tell. Ask me about them sometime and I'll tell you more.
I spent several years working on a consultative basis for agencies around the country while I wrote and published two books with the Christian imprint of HarperCollins, and collaborated on three others. In 2011, I joined the top brand, innovation, and design shop in the tech startup world, Studio Science, where I spent three years as Strategy Director.
There's no question I'd still be there today, but for two great competing loves. Abundant time with my young kids Mirabelle and Henry, and the deep joy I find in serving the families who bring me into their stories.
I served on the board of the Harrison Center for the Arts, and am currently involved with several international ministry efforts, placing particular focus on the care of orphans and girls in Egypt, Haiti, India, and Romania.
As you consider reaching out, here's something to know. My world is really, really good, but it does not belong to me. Nothing does. This especially applies to my business. It all belongs to God. I don't care if you and I think of Him in the same ways ... at all. I will greet you in His name, will serve your family in His name, and I will always treat you as someone who bears His image. I will not sell you. I will not hurry you. You do not need to have anything at all figured out about what you're wanting for your family or for yourself. I do this work because I believe it's what God has invited me to do as a way for Him to delight in the clients He brings me.
If any of that sounds like something you or your family could use, let's chat.