by Jerry Waxler
This is part 3b of the essay, “Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?” Click here for part 3a. In this final part, I give more tips to help you interview your parents so you can generate material for a compelling memoir.
Go deeper with coded family anecdotes
You may already have heard some of the stories for so long, they acquire a rigid sameness, with details and phrases you have heard dozens of times. Use your curiosity to break through the crust of repetition. Ask about other parts of the situation, or where they lived during that time, or how old they were when this event happened, or which parts made them happiest.
For example, I remember my Mom told the story about Dad’s father standing up at their wedding and saying, “To the bride and groom, I give a car.” Her tone of voice when she mimicked him always sounded pompous. I wish I had asked more about it. “That was an expensive gift. Were you surprised when your new father-in-law told you? Was he wealthy? Did many of your peers have cars? Did you have mixed feelings about accepting such an expensive gift from him? How were you making a living during that period?”
Here are more unasked questions:
— “I heard that Grandmom spent her last years in bed. What sorts of situations did that lead to? Tell me about a time when you served her meals there. How did you feel only seeing her in bed?”
— “I only knew Grandpop when he was retired. Show me a scene that will help me visualize him. What did you do with him evenings and on weekends? What was it like going to worship by his side?”
What incident have you filed away under “I’ve heard that a hundred times.” Take a page from my unwritten book, and ask your own parents questions while there is still time. Write questions that would help you see it more completely.
Over the years, you have learned to avoid topics your parents prefer not talking about. In order to get the story, you need to break these taboos. Consider James McBride’s memoir “Color of Water.” His mother had angrily told him to mind his own business whenever he asked her about his past. As she grew older, he realized her past was going to die with her and he grew increasingly insistent. He finally convinced her to talk. From their interviews emerged one of the hallmarks of the memoir generation. As a son, McBride was grateful, and as a reader, so was I.
When your parents express reluctance:
— Let them know how much you want to understand their story.
— Point out that no one is perfect, so there’s no point in pretending they were. Why not turn take advantage of all that experience and turn it into a good story?
— There is power in revealing the truth. For one thing, you don’t have to worry about hiding secrets. And for another, when you share your hardships you also share the courage it took to overcome them. [For more tips about responding to their objections, click here.]
Review and Edit
After each session, you face the technical hurdle of transcribing it to typewritten material so you can edit. If you don’t want to type it yourself, consider hiring someone to do this tedious work. A good place to look for such resources is on the website of the Association for Personal Historians. (APH) [www.personalhistorians.org]. Some people have had success speaking into the software called Dragon Naturally Speaking which converts speech into text.
When you have the interviews in written form, you can weave the information into scenes that readers can enter. Insert new material into your chronological file to show how one situation flows into another, and also give you insights into what is missing. When you hit a puzzle, turn it into a question for further rounds of interviews.
Their character takes shape
When you remember things about your family, you are looking back to your own childhood point of view. To write your parents’ memoir, you need to see those events through their memories, not yours. Try to set yourself aside and listen to the way they explain it, even if it is substantially different from the way you remember it. In fact, this entire project is going to help you enter their frame of reference, seeing the world as they did.
Once they start talking, they may share reminiscences about things they had not discussed in years, joining you in bursts of collaborative energy. As you pull together scenes and link them together, their budding story gradually takes shape. How far this goes will depend on your artistic drive and tenacity, and on their willingness to explore the psychological and social forces that shaped them. The more you polish it, deepen it, and structure it, the more readable it will become.
Wherever you decide to stop, you will find that through the course of the project you have gained understanding, and helped them connect some of the dots in their own past experiences. What started as a literary or historical exercise ends as an opportunity to build intimacy and mutual respect. It’s true that writing a memoir takes time and to achieve your goal you must overcome emotional hurdles. But in the end, everyone wins.
If you don’t have the time and do have the money, you could hire a writer to do the research and create the book of their lives. To find a writer or videographer for your life story, contact Association of Personal Historians.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.