When Kathy Evans’ grandmother had a stroke, Evans saw how quickly patients become depersonalized. “They called her ‘The Stroke in Room 133 Bed B,’” she recalls. Her grandmother, born in 1907, was a college graduate, fluent in several languages. She raised four children and held her family together during the Depression. “She was much more than ‘The Stroke in Room 133 Bed B.’”
Today, Evans, MSOT ’82, wishes she had her grandmother’s story in writing. Through her business, Write for You Life Stories LLC, Evans creates bound, illustrated biographies for others, narrated in the voice of her subjects.
Evans started Writing for You around 11 years ago after hearing about an acquaintance who was writing patients’ stories at a rehab hospital. Though she’d been an occupational therapist since her graduation from Washington University (with breaks and part-time stints while her four children were young), her transition to writer felt natural.
“As an occupational therapist, I was extremely interested in the stories of all my patients,” she says. “When I did home care, I stayed too long. I could do exercises with them and be out in 20 minutes. But when somebody started telling stories, I was a goner. I just wanted to sit and listen.”
Evans also had studied fiction writing, which helped prepare her for her current work. “I think like a fiction writer, which I believe makes me a better interviewer,” she explains. “I’m looking for character, plot, setting, sensory details and relationships, as if I were building a fiction story. And I get some wonderful anecdotes that way.”
As part of her process, Evans focuses on building and nurturing trust, which helps people become more comfortable in sharing their stories. Rather than ask set questions, she lets conversations flow naturally. She types rather than tapes interviews, partly because “some of my clients’ memories are pretty tender and they might not want them to be recorded.” When a client doesn’t want a particular story in the book, Evans doesn’t always stop typing.
“I may write it up, but soft pedal it or write it with delicacy and respect,” she adds. “If the client still wants the section out, it’s out, but first I want them to see it. It may be a truth that needs to be told, if it can be told with great care.”
To elicit detailed reminiscences, Evans gets inventive. To help one individual recall the spirituals she sang with the sharecroppers on her grandfather’s farm, “I brought a long list of spirituals [the next time I went over], and we sat there singing them,” Evans says. One man, who’d served on a destroyer escort during World War II, remembered events but “was spotty on the timeline.” Evans found a list of ports of call for that escort including dates. Evans also finds relevant images of “ships or toys or farm machinery from the era” that clients talk about.
The resulting biographies have ranged in length from 75 to 700 pages and take between 9 months to more than a year to complete. An average book costs $20,000–$30,000 to write. The books themselves are heirlooms and are locally produced.
For those with tighter budgets, Evans learns what’s most important in their past to include. If they cannot afford a full-length book, she gives them tips on writing one themselves. She also gives them copies of Bob Greene and D.G. Fulford’s To Our Children’s Children to get them started.
Despite the slow economy, Evans remains busy. “People might put off buying a new car, putting a new addition on their house,” she says. However, if they want a parent’s memoir or one of their own, they make it a priority. Evans estimates she’s produced nearly 40 books, including her current projects. In 2003 she recruited her father, Richard Miller, a retired minister and avid genealogist, to prepare genealogical appendices; upon request, he does further research. Since 2009, she has several part-time assistants. “At first I … did everything. Now I delegate whatever I can, so I can focus on the writing itself.”
Evans loves her business. “I feel as if it’s what I was put on Earth to do,” she says. “Sometimes people want to write a book to help them make sense of their lives: the decisions they’ve made, the corners they’ve turned, their joys and sorrows and failures and successes. It’s a courageous exploration of their own lives, but most importantly, it’s an act of generosity to their families.”
Beth Herstein, AB ’83, is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.