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BOOKS have played a unique role as a means of trying to perpetuate ourselves. Booklore is rife with examples of people who have been buried with books; others have written works with the hope these would ensure some kind of immortality.
Many wills are attempts to continue to influence, even control, people and events after the author's death. Autobiographies and memoirs reach out for a permanency beyond the author's lifespan. Much of writing and other creative work is motivated by a need to put the meanings of a life into a permanent form. "Every artist writes his own biography," said the British psychologist and author, Havelock Ellis.
Diaries can play these roles also, despite the fact that in these high-pressure times they are called "agendas," as if their only function is to monitor appointments and other time-sensitive commitments. Diaries have always been a means to secure a form of immortality and permanence for the author, as well as being working documents to develop ideas and think through problems.
E-books provide a new form of personal expression in a medium that is almost as difficult to define in physical terms as life itself. When you relate an autobiographical e-book to the concept that a form of immortality can be achieved by capturing one's thoughts and attitudes within computer files, fascinating possibilities emerge. The ultimate e-diary or e-autobiography would be so comprehensive that it would pass a kind of Turing test, in which you would feel you were communicating with a real person when interacting with it via a powerful computer and artificial intelligence software.
The e-book of your life can take many formats in addition to the obvious autobiographical record. These new publishing media offer many different ways to use your creativity to add new interests and dimensions to the record of your life--particularly if you have spent a lifetime developing skills, knowledge, or expertise that should be passed on to others.
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Keeping electronic diaries has become very easy in a variety of programs, with PIMs (personal information managers), particularly appropriate for the task. Otherwise, any word processor or text editor will do; often, simpler is better if it is run on a portable that is readily accessible whenever thoughts need to be captured.
Even the author of a diary who guards its secrets while alive might wish to have it published after he or she has died. Sadly, however, many of these records of lives are lost or destroyed. Perhaps, because of the practicality of archiving digital diaries, we can envisage a central depository of diaries on disk, with it becoming routine in a will to instruct your heirs to whom, and when, access may be granted, and if efforts should be made to publish it at a prescribed future date when its encryption codes will be automatically unlocked. Such a virtual cryogenic depository of thoughts and attitudes would be inexpensive to set up and operate on-line, providing the Internet's cyberspace community with an intellectual graveyard from which rebirth is not only possible, but routine.
The fact that the diaries of Samuel Pepys and Ann Frank survive to give us unique insights on important periods in history only underlines the unknown losses that have occurred because physical diaries did not survive fire, floods, holocausts, rodents, or decay. Also, contemporary diarists can be inspired by the possibility that their writings might have value that they cannot yet define. C.S. Lewis, the English diarist, would never have guessed how capturing the most intimate moments of his private life would help to create Shadowlands, one of the most acclaimed films of 1994, and inspire international interest in his other writings long after his death.
The impact that electronic media can have on the art of the diarist is a fascinating topic. Unfortunately, the best book on diaries, Thomas Mallon's A Book of One's Own, People and Their Diaries, has gone
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out of print. Perhaps there might be an electronic version before long, so that we can share Mellon's insightful analyses of why people keep books of their lives to help to perpetuate those lives.
Being able to express your own life experiences in the written word can be therapeutic. Many authors have done this in either fictional work, or in their own diaries or memoirs. Publication of the final text along with access to the writer's research material, notes, and explanations of his or her motivations can greatly enhance the comprehension and enjoyment of readers, and is readily achievable in electronic formats.
For example, David Cornwell, who writes best-selling spy novels as John le Carre, revealed to People magazine the benefits he gained by expressing his long suppressed feelings about his father in A Perfect Spy. "I felt as if I'd taken myself through some kind of wonderful, refreshing therapy," he said.
The therapeutic effects of the writing process can be greatly enhanced with the knowledge that it will be possible to publish electronically. Just knowing that the publishing ability is there somehow adds a greater sense of purpose and a rationale to the writing process, making it seem less introspective and self-indulgent.
It can be particularly rewarding later in life to focus on the influences of childhood. As another author, Humphrey Carpenter, points out, "a children's book can be the perfect vehicle for an adult's most personal and private concerns." So the most fruitful time of even a long and active life to mine for a book might well be the early days of childhood.
An e-book can be the most practical way to compile a family chronicle as a permanent record that can be updated with births, deaths, marriages, and other significant events. Several software programs can help you write the story of an individual life or the
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chronicle of a family. Some are most useful for genealogical research and compiling basic data, while others are more like do-it-yourself autobiography kits, prompting with questions about births, employment, and special family events.
Some resume-generating software programs provide similar prompts to structure and build the story of a life. Use the software to create a resume to try to get a job, and keep on using it to develop a resume of a life to publish within a family and leave to your children and grandchildren.
An e-book autobiography or family chronicle can be greatly enhanced by ancestor charts, or family trees. You can make these more interesting if the names of the people involved are accompanied by scanned photographs. These can be enhanced, turned into line drawings, and sized by image-manipulating software, then put into position on the chart.
A really great program for doing this kind of graphic publishing and lots of other graphic work is Visio from Shapeware Corporation (206-467-6723). It is marketed to the business community to help managers and technical people who cannot draw produce impressive visuals for printed or electronic presentations. Its low street price and easy drag-and-drop method of working with shapes and electronic stencils makes it an attractive tool, also, for individual authors to add a wide range of graphics to their titles.
A multimedia autobiography or family chronicle can include sound files of voices and video clips as well. Kodak's Photo CD software and third-party programs can turn a collection of slides or still photographs into a really comprehensive multimedia e-book of an individual life, a marriage, or an entire family.
You don't need to have been famous or have led an eventful life to write about your experiences. You might have a particular expertise
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that can be communicated effectively to others by letting them share the stories of your life. This can be an ideal retirement project, with the potential to generate significant income.
"I am very excited about electronic publishing--I'm afraid I will be left behind if I don't learn about it," 65-year-old John Damiano, of Springfield, Pennsylvania, says. "I was a chemist before I retired, and many ideas come to mind for electronic publishing in the chemical education field to help supplement my social security and pension checks."
John's first step to develop his retirement publishing project was to register his SoftBook Publishing business name in his state. Establishing a registered name and a clearly identified and protected publishing imprint gives an identity and form to such an enterprise. What otherwise might appear merely a dream or passing whim takes on serious intent. Such official registration enables you to focus your own efforts, as well as improve the attitude of others to your electronic publishing projects.
Choose the name carefully, as John did, so that in editorial publicity, advertisements, and other promotions it conveys substance and creates an image that distances the authoring from the publishing. Using your own name as the basis for the business name and imprint makes registration easier, but it has practical disadvantages. A distinctive name for the imprint, like "SoftBook Publishing," enhances the image, and consequent marketability, of the publication by helping to disguise that it is self-published. This might seem like pandering to the entrenched perceptions that have bedeviled self-publishing for so long, but we must be realistic about these things.
John demonstrates also that you can get into the business with minimum expense. There is just no need for him to have software on the cutting edge of the technology. I sent him a copy of Writer's Dream that will work excellently on the system he bought in the late 1980s, a basic computer by today's standards that he funded with a five-gallon jug of coins saved over the years.
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