YOUR STORY MATTERS!
Memoir Writing Instructor Answers Your Questions
Post #3 in Series
Every life is made up of stories—some are deliriously happy tales, others are devastatingly sad, and our life experiences represent every imaginable kind of emotion in between. We all have family history and life stories, and the sad truth is that if we don’t preserve them, they are permanently gone. There is no rewind. There is no going back to capture them.
Follow this series of Questions & Answers over the next few months! Learn more about memoir writing, pick up your pen or grab your keyboard, and produce a written legacy for loved ones. Participate by emailing your memoir writing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q3. I want to interview my elderly parents in order to include their stories in my memoir project and then continue on with my own. Do you have any tips for asking them questions and triggering their memories?
A3. What a great question!! And how fortunate you are to have living parents who can tell you their stories and give you insight into their life experiences. Interviewing them will provide information that you have likely never before heard and would never have known had you not taken the time to work on this project.
A few relevant tips are:
1-See if documents already exist-Ask your parents if anyone in the family has ever written any bits and pieces of family history. If you are able to get your hands on a copy, you will be ahead of the game! Fortunately, in 1983, my Aunt Ruth on my father’s side took the time to write a document by using an old manual typewriter. Although only a few pages in length, it sheds light on information about my grandparents and great-grand parents, what times were like when she was growing up, and she expresses how she wished someone of the older generation had provided dates and events that took place in their day. She said it would have meant a lot to her. So find out if anyone in your family has ever taken the time to do this. It would truly be a treasure.
2-Plan carefully-I discovered in interviewing my own mother that I had to catch her at the right time for interview sessions. If she was tired or hungry, it was simply not going to work. Late mornings and early afternoons proved to be the optimal times for her to recall and have stamina to continue our work. By evenings after dinnertime, it was difficult for her to focus and remember. Now perhaps this was specific to her, but you can experiment with the best times for your loved one to enjoy the process. We scheduled sessions of approximately one hour each, unless Mom was on a roll and felt like continuing past our allotted time.
3-List your questions for each session-If you are not sure which topics will trigger pertinent memories, there are over 140 questions listed in the back of 7 Easy Steps to Memoir Writing: Build a Priceless Legacy One Story at a Time! Read through them and choose the questions that are apropos for your parents. Cover only a few at each session, and be sure to ask them about anything they wish to add. One story definitely leads to another, and you might even provide a list of the questions in advance in order for them to give some thought to their answers and not feel that you are putting them on the spot.
4-Use a recording device-It is impossible to write down everything they are saying unless you are skilled at shorthand! Use a small, inexpensive handheld recorder (check Radio Shack or Best Buy) to capture their stories and then have the recordings transcribed into a document. Advise them that you are recording, but place the recorder in a nearby location that is not intrusive. Otherwise, they may become apprehensive and tense about relaying their experiences. Words of wisdom: Occasionally check the device to be certain that it is working, and bring extra batteries and/or tapes with you. This is a good opportunity to offer them a beverage or snack.
5-If time is limited or you cannot interview in person-I have a friend who planned a week’s visit with her parents to record their stories. She really had to stick with the focus of her visit and accomplish capturing as many stories as possible during her brief stay. She chose to video her parents telling their stories, and this is one fabulous option--unless they are camera shy and clam up! It worked for her, however, and she obtained a multitude of stories with the added benefit of actually being able to see them share their memories with her. If you cannot be present for the interviews, try recording the conversations by telephone. When I interview clients, I use a special cord/earpiece from Radio Shack to attach to my telephone. Caution: Be sure that this device is compatible with your telephone. I have also found that I must record in a location where there is no wireless activity occurring or you may have a great interview that is muffled by interference in the form of a low roar on the recording. When I record by telephone, I work from a telephone extension located in a guest bedroom, far away from computers, printer, modem, router, etc., and the clarity is excellent.
Integrate some of these suggestions, and you will find that you are paving the road to successful interviews!
Motivate them by telling them how important it is to you to preserve their memories.
Encourage them by spending quality time with them to elicit their stories.
Move slowly. You cannot rush them. They will not cooperate if they are feeling pressured.
Offer them the Mini-Memoir (see my website at http://www.awriterspresence.com) as a starting point.
Initiate memory-generating conversations. Use a recorder to preserve the dialogue.
Retrieve old family photos, albums or movies to refresh their memories.
Supply questions in advance. They may need time for reflection before answering.
Our stories are a priceless legacy!
Mary Anne Benedetto is the owner of A Writer’s Presence, LLC, a writer, speaker, blogger, Certified Lifewriting Instructor, and an affiliate teacher with the The Memoir Network. Author of 7 Easy Steps to Memoir Writing: Build a Priceless Legacy One Story at a Time!, she offers beneficial tips, hints and critical steps in memoir writing in order to remove the “overwhelmed” factor in memoir projects.
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