We don’t usually think of “secrets” as bringing families together. But in my experience at StoryKeep, the hardest stuff to talk about is often the most important to share. It comes down to context and trust. I’m so excited to share an article I recently published in Legacy Arts magazine on this very subject:
I never expected to become a confessor. When I founded StoryKeep in 2010, I was focused on the craft of storytelling itself—on pacing, narrative arcs, and the like. After all, my dream was to make documentary films and legacy books for families that were studio-quality. But having worked with over 80 families, I’ve come to appreciate that my work goes beyond mere documentation. It’s about turning secrets into stories that strengthen family bonds and promote healing.
At first, I was struck by how many storytellers of all stripes volunteered secrets to me. Often the secrets come out in preliminary, off-the-record conversations. “I’ve never told anyone this …” a client will say, or, “Only very, very few people know this … .” Stories of divorces, family drama, wartime scars, private thoughts and feelings— every family has them, and it’s my job to bear witness and keep confidentiality.
It’s also my obligation to avoid topics that clients want to keep out of their projects. But the thing is—and this truly surprised me at first—storytellers often end up bringing these exact subjects up “on the record.” They pause and take a deep breath; I can feel them deciding whether they can trust me. And then they exhale, and the previously un-sharable comes out, often with a smile of relief. In that moment of opening, transformation happens. A new possibility is made available. Like all of us, they want to be heard, to unburden themselves, and discuss the most important moments and challenges in their life.
I have seen a patriarch share a secret on the record, one he specifically planned not to reveal, only to open the door for his children to finally share their true feelings. This hidden-away piece of their family identity was peeled back like the rind of an orange. In the breaking of skin, zest and fragrant oil hit the senses and woke everyone to a beauty within. This former secret became the most valuable part of their film. The dry disconnection that had existed alchemized through discussion into sweetness. Seeing this transformation occur on screen could not be more compelling.
Secrets don’t come out by accident. I’ve learned that when a storyteller shares something highly personal on camera, what they really want is to incorporate that secret into their family’s identity. The art of family stories, as I call it, involves turning those secrets into legacy projects – life-affirming narratives that bind family members together in love, forgiveness, and understanding.
I’ve come to see that my work must go far beyond mere documentation. StoryKeep has to create art that captures the heart and mind, art that’s personal and powerful enough to carry stories across generations. The revelation of secrets is certainly not the only way to compel viewers or readers to pay attention, but when the time and place is right, the art of family secrets can bind people in a love that’s unbreakable.
Visit StoryKeep.com to learn more about our books and films.
Ann Birks is a Montreal style icon. She’s literally one of the most colorful people you’ll ever meet (just ask Canada’s top newspaper!). And yet, when we first discussed doing a film about her life as a collector and patron of the arts, her response was, “I’m not sure there’s a story here.”
In this regard, Ann is like a lot of StoryKeep clients. Most have the glimmer of an idea but aren’t sure how their film will take shape or whether it will be worth sharing. Good news—turning “glimmers” into beautiful, compelling films is what we do. If you can think of somebody you’d love to capture on film, you have more than enough to get the ball rolling.
Click here to learn more about what’s possible.
Once Ann realized that, she was able to relax and enjoy the process of making “A Sun for the Flowers.” Click the video up top to watch a 3-minute trailer of the feature-length film.
Ann’s film is unlike anything we’ve ever done before, and we couldn’t be more proud of it. Whereas many StoryKeep films focus on a family elder’s life story, “A Sun for the Flowers” is the story of a woman in her prime. We explore how Ann became the colorful collector she is today and meet the artisans that have enriched her life and wardrobe.
And to think that Ann’s film all began with the question, ‘What’s the story?’! So as we roll into the holiday season, think about the colorful people in your life. They’re worth documenting. And there’s a story there—trust us on that one!
We must tell you about Abby Shachat. When Abby was a kid at summer camp, her mom used to write letters to her. Abby loved her mom’s letters. Reading them made it feel like her mom was sitting right beside her. “She was a pretty ‘no nonsense’ kind of person,” Abby told me recently. “Her letters were great because she wrote as if she were talking to me. When I read them—as a kid and now as an adult—I get to hear her voice, which is really amazing.”
No matter how many emails fill your inbox, or how often your phone beeps with an incoming text message, chances are none of them compares to the magic of a handwritten letter. There’s just something special about them—how they capture the essence of the writer and convey a simple, profound message: “I’m thinking of you.”
Abby has come to appreciate her collection of summer-camp letters even more in the decades since her mother’s passing. “They’re one of the most precious things I have,” Abby said. Simply knowing that her mom touched the same paper gives them soul and depth. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have letters and journals in our family archives know that they’re among our most treasured heirlooms. That’s why it’s so important that they be shared in meaningful ways.
We work with handwritten documents all the time. Our book and film projects place a family’s handwritten pieces in the context of life stories, making them more poignant and accessible. After all, it’s much easier to open a book or watch a film than to sort through boxes of documents in the attic. Which means that someone like Abby can return to her loved one’s words—drawing strength, wisdom, and inspiration—whenever she likes.
We’re currently working with a woman named Susan in Manhattan to bring her dad’s World War II letters to life. The final product will be a coffee table book with scans of the original letters alongside easy-to-read transcriptions, as well as beautiful photographs from her dad’s time in the service. Soon, Susan will be able to hear her dad’s voice again and share the book with friends and family.
Late last year, the Connecticut Post wrote an article about our work with another storyteller, Phoebe Ford. We integrated Phoebe’s parents’ World War I diaries into a 30-minute film that features footage of Phoebe reading from her parents’ diaries, including the incredible story of how they first met. Click here to watch a clip from Phoebe’s film.
We hope you’re having a swell summer, be it at summer camp or somewhere else that pleases your soul!
P.S. Thanks to Abby for speaking with us about letter-writing! Abby is a friend of StoryKeep’s and the principal at AJS design/s, a wonderful architecture and design firm.