Define Your Dash: Start Writing Your Personal History with the #52Stories Project

January 9, 2017  - by 

Start Writing Your Personal History with the #52Stories Project

On nearly every headstone, no matter how plain or ornate, is carved one universal symbol. It’s a simple horizontal line—a dash—separating two significant dates. The first marks the day one precious soul entered this mortal life. The second marks his or her inevitable journey onward.

A well-known poem by Linda Ellis, “The Dash,” speaks of this symbol:

“For that dash represents all the time
that they spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved them
know what that little line is worth.”

We are each, right now, standing somewhere in the middle of our own individual dashes. As Dieter F. Uchtdorf has said, “We may feel we are at the beginning or end of our lives, but when we look at where we are against the backdrop of eternity . . . we can recognize that we are truly in the middle” (“Always in the Middle,” Ensign, July 2012, 4).

Because it’s human nature to think of our lives in terms of beginnings and endings, the new year gives us the perfect opportunity to make sure we are making the most of that dash, filling in the details of our lives so our loved ones and our posterity are not left wondering what happened in between.

Why Define Your Dash?

All of us are “in the dash.” But, you may be thinking, “I’ve got plenty of time to record my life story for my posterity. Why start now? Why this year?”

Here’s why: because, in addition to the value of leaving a legacy, great personal and family benefits also arise from personal reflection and journaling.

Personally, you’ll benefit from the practice of reflecting over your life, collecting your thoughts, and making sense of your experiences. The very act of writing things down is therapeutic; it can provide a sense of purpose and control. It may also reveal patterns in your life, increase your gratitude, foster a stronger sense of self, and even make you happier and more successful in your daily life.

In his book The Happiness Advantage, Harvard professor Shawn Achor cites research that shows how “explanatory style—how we choose to explain the nature of past events—has a crucial impact on our happiness and future success. People with an optimistic explanatory style interpret adversity as being local and temporary . . . while those with a pessimistic explanatory style see these events as more global and permanent. Their beliefs then directly affect their actions” ([New York: Crown Publishing, 2010], 187–88).

The pen (or keyboard) is in your hands. You get to choose how you interpret and explain the events of your life—both for your own benefit and for the benefit of current and future generations. And not just at some future date. Right now.

A study published in the Journal of Family Life in 2010 (“Do You Know? The power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being”) found that teens who knew more stories about their extended family were more resilient in the face of adversity. They showed "higher levels of emotional well-being, and also higher levels of identity achievement, even when controlling for general level of family functioning” (“Children Benefit if They Know About Their Relatives, Study Finds,” Emory University press release, Mar. 3, 2010).

Citing this research, Bruce Feiler wrote in the New York Times that children with the most self-confidence have what’s called a strong “intergenerational self.” In other words:

“They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.”

How to Define Your Dash

Don’t expect to sit down and pour out the events of your entire life in one epic writing session. Just like a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, a personal history begins with a single story, followed by another story, and another one. And that’s where FamilySearch’s #52Stories Project comes in.

The idea is to write one brief story about your life, past or present, every week this year. You can do this in a handwritten journal, in a document on your computer, or via a series of voice or video recordings. You can even select certain stories to share on your FamilySearch Family Tree profile, where they’ll be preserved for your posterity.

At the end of the year, you’ll have 52 notches in your personal history dash. That’s 52 opportunities to capture the story of your life—52 chances to shape your family’s intergenerational narrative.

Sounds easy enough in theory, but what on earth are you going to write about each week? Should you just start at the beginning and record all the events of your life chronologically?

Actually, no. That’s the most challenging way to go about this project. Memory isn’t orderly, structured, or predictable. Recollections are more likely to surface randomly, sparked by various external triggers. Embrace the randomness, and just start writing. You can always organize your stories later if chronology matters to you.

You don’t have to look far for a great series of memory triggers. The #52Stories Project has divided the year into 12 themes, from “Goals & Achievements” to “Education & School” to “Holidays & Traditions,” providing 12 different questions for each theme. That’s a total of 144 questions, giving you plenty of options to choose from as you build your library of #52stories. The questions are available for download, and you’ll also see a different question highlighted each week on Instagram (@FamilySearch) and the FamilySearch Facebook Page.

Weekly questions for #52stories

Your Story Matters

Start filling in the details of your dash now, while you’re still in the middle. Discover the power of shaping your own personal history, strengthening family bonds, and yes, leaving a legacy.

“A life that is not documented is a life that within a generation or two will largely be lost to memory,” said Dennis B. Neuenschwander in a 1999 LDS general conference address. “What a tragedy this can be in the history of a family. Knowledge of our ancestors shapes us and instills within us values that give direction and meaning to our lives.”


Additional Resources:

Free Printables and Downloads
Free Downloadable #52Stories Printables

18 Writing Tips
How to write your personal history with confidence.

Weekly Questions
One question a week for writing your personal history



Free #52Stories Printables

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  1. I have been thinking of doing something like this for some time especially with regards to the wider family tree so I will probably take up your suggestion

  2. It would be so much easier for me if the #52Stories questions were either fillable or copy-able to Word format. As it is, going back and forth between the questions and Word (as well as having to retype the actual question)is just too clumsy. Wonderful questions, though!

  3. me the hinojosa herreras washingtoneayers garcia solis perez guerra garcia possibly ballie are afamily with out ahistory mysister erma vaquz and i eduardo herrera hinojsoa begin wondering why we were anglo with spanish names and it took martin eayers from the uk to open to the door to the past my great grand father was george washington eayers grey captain u s s mercury sea otter smuggler caught and spent his last years in guadalajara jalisco mexico pssed 1855 he had anumber of sons my grand fahter was jose ignacio martin washington eayers his brother jose roland fights at the alamo with the mexican cavalry called ; jAliSco 18th lancers ,WELLGRAND PAW MARTINEAYERS MOVES TO SOUTH TEXAS AND MARRIED INTO THE DEYNOJOSAS SOLIS GARCIAS AND THEY ARE SPANISH LAND GRANT OWNERS BUT LOOSE IT TO TQ TAXLIENS CALLED QUIT CLAIMS sALES TAX LieNS aND IN 188o MY GREAT GRAND PaRENTS ARe lIVING IN RIOGRANDE CITY as sheep herders ,i dont know , what or how to figure then we learn that our grand maw eduviges hinojosa solis washington by marriage is part of the spanish land grants they owned share five llano grande hidalgo county texas but we never found any trace to our grand mother grave she had four kids delfina was my grand mother washington Solis married name hinojosa but she was hinojosa garcia before marriage ,so we find various court documnets date 1905 19071908 and its power of attorney to various ranch propertiesv hidalgo county archives and anglos took it as tax liens names frank kibbe schunior and james wells and others then in1920 theyare renting in duval county broke orphanned and homeless so the genocide of mexicans in the riogrande valley included the hinojosas 1915to1919 who couldn,t own land inthe texas republic ,so i found out what i didnt want to that our familieswere poor illiterate mexicans taken advantage of and we became us citizens in 1845 thru annexation of texas, but the guadalupe hidalgo treaty of 1845 didnt protect or give us full citizen ship? treaties were broken by the the united states of america and the white mans incusrion into texas displaced us ,so it goes and we are military families but with out resources white mans owns our properties anmd mineral rights

    1. if we owned the thousands of acres in our spanish land grants la feria las abras llano grande and las mestenias we would be some of the richest families in south texas an the nation but it wasnt meant to be ,we trace our roots to count knight jose escandon one of thirteen families who settled the south west and camargo ciudad mier and reynosa tamaulipas mexico and texas ,the texas rangers slaughtered thousands of mexicans taking there land grant deeds at gunpoint jt canales texas house rep 19151-1919 stopped it so we now know what our families history is and didnt wanna know ,we were families of means but no means and we come fromalongline of mexican and spanish officers and us military but ,broke ,mygreat grand father juan jose de ynojosa de la garza is mentioned in the texas historical association online as a military pffie mayor of reynosa mexico 1810 and land grant owner recieved llano grande july 4 1776 so now texas state school system owns our land and we own the history as does the king ranchers klebergs and armstrongs easts miflin kenedy foundnation and catholic church . we are land less horseless or cattle less and mineral rights deficient ,grand amw del;fina washingtoneayer hinojsoa solis garcia died in a ranch owned by the lassiters in falfurrias texas ,grand paw estanislado passed and is buried in falfurrias texas city cemetary ,dad martin and family is buried at premont cemetary as is his mom victoria perez

    1. Garry, I started, on the computer, with my very earliest memories.After that it ust seemed to flow.Getting started is the hardest part.I plan to print it out eventually, in plastic leaves, in a book, with appropriate photographs on the adjacent pages.

  4. Family history is the story of life, The family/person that story applies to is forever in the lives of future generations, instead of being that illusive old Person that we are now researching. Genealogy is not simply dates & places , with possibly some events of that person’s life. It is a rich look at our past generations way of life & achievements.I have written my own life story, warts & all. My own children are not all that interested, but just maybe their descendants will look back with some interest & not have to do all the research that I have done over these past 40+ years. Cheers Bill.

  5. I have been jotting things about my life down for years but have now reached the time in my lief when family breakdown occured. i am worried that to write all the details of my life from that day on could cause more family problems or even court cases . This also applies to the fact I am writing about the life of my parents. It has been suggested to me that I change all names concerned ,even mine. your opinion please.

    1. Lydia…I had much the same quandary.As I did not want to cause family rift, or hurt people’s feelings I decided to omit most details.I only wrote a brief statement as to what occurred.It is better to move on, do not dwell in the past

  6. Sounds interesting, I have a journal that covers about 40 years. My children know where to find it. I am thinking of condensing it and putting a copy of it with the family tree.

  7. I started the history of my “Dash” about five years ago, titled “1936 Kid”. I began with a short history of my Grandparents, Parents and from my earliest memories about 1939. Today it is now quite lengthy as I recall some event and add that.

  8. You are so right, we should all write something to leave behind for our family to read. Life goes by so fast as, I think about my past, I think about what my great-great grandparents were like. I wonder if, they were as nice, caring, giving, and loving as my parents are. I wonder how they survived the hardships of war, the cold weather, the mean people that hated them for being Mexicans and Native Americans. When I see, read, and hear stories about Geronimo (supposedly related to me thru my great-great grandmother ( Ma Felicita Ramos ) It breaks my heart ! I wish I could tell them that even thou I was not raised with them, I am sorry they suffered so much and how God sees and knows everything I know he is taking care of them and rewarding them in heaven! I hope they were all Christians, like most of my immediate family. I love my family, and I am praying for them all the time! I am 58 years old and on April 17 I will turn 59 I have all but good memories of my past life!!! How many people can say that? It is all because, God permitted everything that happened to me (good and bad) to happen! I am not saying I did not go threw any bad situations , but whatever it was, everything worked out ok. THANK GOD !!

  9. I am sure that what puts most people off is the thought of writing a book. I eventually finished up with one for my descendants,”Don’t Just Sit There!”, one of my Mothers favourite sayings, but I started with a short piece about the feather mattress I slept on as a boy. With computers it is simple to be random and edit afterwards. Writing strictly chronologically is restricting and can lead to the proverbial brick wall.

  10. A few years ago I found online 52 questions for 52 weeks. I started doing it on my laptop when I travelled for business – at the airport, on the plane, in the hotel. It took two years, but in the end I had over 25 typed pages. I’m going to check out these questions…maybe more pages to add!

  11. I have been keeping a handwritten diary since 1972, plus lots of letters detailing family life..Twelve months ago I decided to write” My Life Story”.?.I am now 83.
    So far I have typed about 60 pages onto the computer.
    I found that doing a timeline, year by year, was the easiest way to go.When I found more information, it was so easy to slot it into the relevant year
    Reading your Newsletter today opened up a whole new world of what to write about…thank you.

  12. How do we add our stories to our personal file? I’ve been up, down & sideways on this website trying to find where I add my story. Please Help Me.

  13. I have downloaded and printed off the information & questions & charts to possibly give to a Seniors Group meeting in our complex to motivate others to write their life stories before it is lost.
    Thank You for the incentive to inspire others to leave a lasting legacy to their family.