Brian Lewis grew up in a difficult council building after arriving in England as part of the Windrush generation. At the age of eight, he developed an interest in chess, and joined a team made up of Estate Board kids to take part in tournaments against kids from generally more privileged backgrounds. At the age of twelve, he played – and beat – an international chess expert.
You may have never heard of Brian, yet he is among the thousands of people joining a rapidly growing trend of “regular” people who are keeping to posterity their life stories using a ghostwritten autobiography. There has been a sharp rise in demand for these services in the wake of the Covid pandemic.
“I think during the lockdowns, maybe people are starting to think about their deaths, the loss of loved ones,” says Rutger Bruening, founder and CEO of StoryTerrace, one of the UK’s fastest growing CV services. “People couldn’t see their parents, kids couldn’t see their grandparents, people didn’t know how long that would last.”
The company has a team of about 750 interviewees, many of them journalists or ex-journalists, who are posted to interview subjects. Prices vary from £1,800 to £5,850, depending on the package.
There are stories of hope that actually look like something out of a book, like that of Desiree Homes. She was enjoying a privileged life in a huge house when everything changed. She was diagnosed with bowel cancer, her husband lost his job and they both ended up living in a caravan. Her daughter became homeless and was living on the streets.
Life has changed irrevocably, it seems. Until one day her husband bought a lucky dish from EuroMillions, and earned £1 million.
With a life like that of Desiree, who lives near Maidstone, you always knew she had a book in her. So she got a nickname. “If I ever wrote the story of my life, I always said it would be called Then After. Because whenever I tell people about my life, only when they thought I told them the biggest thing I would say ‘Then next…'” she says.
But she didn’t have time to sit down and write, and when she saw StoryTerrace mentioned in a magazine article she reached out to, she sent samples of writing from potential ghost writers, and chose one after a phone consultation.
She adds, “One of the reasons I did this was because I was telling my children stories that a nanny would tell me, and I realized that no one was telling those stories orally anymore, and I wanted to talk about this writing now that I have grandchildren and a granddaughter.”
“Talking about my story is also very healing for me too, it helps keep me grounded, and I can pick up my book at any time and remind myself of what happened.”
Then there are those participants who want to record a major change in their lives of a different kind. Naushad Qayyum was one of them. As the son of a righteous Muslim, he married a woman who was approved by his family but on his wedding day, disaster struck. His father stood up to give a speech and died instantly of a heart attack. Due to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, Naushad experienced suicidal thoughts and sought help, later dedicating his life to helping men cope with mental health issues.
“By the time after the accident and when I was getting treatment, I was taking a lot of diaries,” he says. “It was part of the healing process as my therapist advised me, and at this time also unfortunately I lost a lot of male friends to suicide. It felt like I was given the opportunity to do something about it, to say something about this and raise awareness that we can’t live like this.
“It’s clicked into place so that I can use what I know and write a book, or have someone help me do it as a way of speaking.”
Bruening says the impetus to start a diary company came as a child, when he used to spend his school holidays with his grandparents. “My grandfather was a wonderful storyteller and had set up a resistance group in World War II, and later moved to the Caribbean with my grandmother where they started practicing general medicine. There were a lot of stories, and there always seemed to be new stories, or additions to old ones. But when they died The stories seemed to fade away a lot faster than I expected, and I’m sorry I didn’t ask the questions I should have asked.”
StoryTerrace isn’t the only company that writes stories for regular people. Alison Vena started The Book of My Life in 2007, when a neighbor asked her if she would write her life story. Fina, whose background is writing and editing, founded the company, submitting resumes and photos of up to 50,000 words.
She says the business has grown steadily and now produces, with a team of writers, about 100 books a year. “We have seen a significant increase in sales during the closings,” says Vina. “I think that’s partly because people have more time to think and a chance to get those jobs they’ve always thought about but haven’t been able to do – like writing their memoirs.
“We’ve written books for business people, scientists, nurses, doctors, fellow scientists, educators and more. I’m fascinated by all of our clients’ stories, not least because the world they grew up in 60 or 70 years ago is very different from the world we know.”
Notable stories, she said, include the Ukrainian engineer who fled to Germany during World War II, the entrepreneur who changed the General Post Office’s policy on women wearing trousers, and the publicist who founded Luncheon Vouchers, which began in 1946 as a way for businesses to get tax relief from By providing food vouchers to employees [LINK: https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/feb/06/workers-benefit-from-luncheon-vouchers-archive-1957]
“My advice to anyone considering writing their own story, or giving a ghost-written life story to a loved one, is not to leave it too late,” she says. “Many of us regret not asking our parents and grandparents more about their lives while we had the chance, but I’ve never come across anyone who regretted writing their story.”
Not all resume writing services are for profit. Hospice Biographers was created in 2017 by Barbara Altounyan, a journalist who recorded the life story of her terminally ill father by chatting with him, just before his death, and realized that this was a service that could be offered to other people.
The charity recently changed its name to Stories for Life to reflect its expanding profile as it is in the process of offering its free services to people receiving palliative care in a variety of settings.
Stories for Life is funded by fundraising and donation events, and instead of a print book, it provides a professional-level audio file of interviews conducted by the 100-person volunteer team with the subjects. It’s about to launch a paid service that anyone can access, with the income earmarked for the free resume initiative.
“It can be very helpful for someone to talk about their life,” says Claire Cater of Stories for Life. “Often, during interviews, they remember things they forgot themselves, and there may be stories from their lives that even their families don’t know.
“Traditionally, family stories were always told in gatherings, and that’s something I think gets a little lost. And during Covid in particular, when people couldn’t see each other, the opportunity to pass on those stories to the family was wasted. I think that made people think about wanting in preserving these family stories for the future.”
The biggest obstacle for people drowning in a resume is that they don’t think they are important enough, Bruining says. “They say my life is so boring, and I’ve never done anything” but it’s not boring for their families, and their stories show how the world changes. We don’t try to write bestsellers, we tell real stories. There is an old saying that everyone has a book inside of them and it’s true, it’s It just doesn’t need to sell 100,000 copies to be valid.”