Writing your parent’s memoir is a big project. To make it more manageable, break it into steps. First, write the old familiar anecdotes and place them in chronological order. Take your time, digging up the snips and glimpses you have heard over the years. Brainstorm with siblings, cousins, and with your parents to make sure you have everything.
Next, begin to work with your parents to develop the timeline. Ask them to go through the years and list the dates of important events: when were they born, changed schools, moved, married, had children, got their first job, or other any milestones they feel are crucial. As you put these events into your file, you can check to see if your anecdotes are in order. “Did that come before or after the move to the new home?” By the time you finish this second step, you will have a wonderful repository of what you know, and when it all took place.
Seeing these story fragments come together will stir new questions. How did they transition from one segment of their lives to another? What were the underlying emotional drivers? Who were the other important characters? What did places look like? To turn the fragments into a readable story, you will shift from a left-brain researcher to a right-brain explorer.
To learn who your parents were, you will need to learn a wider range of their experiences, such as jobs, sports, dating, illness, siblings, art, hobbies, and so on. Along with the factual information, you will need to learn about emotions, such as loves, fears, and hopes.
Don’t expect to find all this information methodically. Instead, start loosely, let them talk freely. During editing you can organize the material. This is the same method I recommend for writing a memoir. When you research your own memoir, stir up lively anecdotes by asking yourself questions called “writing prompts.” For example, you ask yourself to describe each of the houses you lived in, or describe situations when your hair or clothing style was especially important.
You can use a similar strategy when conducting interviews, asking stimulating “interview prompts.” For example,
— “Tell me all about your education.”
— “What was Grandmom like in the kitchen?”
— “What was it like going out on dates in those days?”
“When did your hair became part of a story. Did it ever fall out, change color, or did someone say something flattering or rude about it?” You are likely to generate a fun, readable scene that will bring the past to life.
Growing your skill as an interviewer
Your style of listening plays an important role. Try to emulate your favorite television or radio interviewers. A good interviewer knows how to respond to the vagaries of conversation, steering between the extremes of too much and too little direction. If you exert too much control, you stifle authenticity and miss surprises. Too little direction allows disorganized, flabby rambling.
Strike a balance between these extremes. If they lead you into new territory, relax and see where they are heading. By staying with them, you can take advantage of potentially important inner associations. If you decide they are drifting away from useful material, for example philosophizing about the economy or complaining about the neighbors, you can gently steer them back to the task at hand.
Richer detail makes better reading
If your interviewee tends to speak in terms of ideas, summaries, and overviews, their memories won’t allow a reader inside their experience. To write compelling scenes, ask for more sensory information, dialog, and thought processes. “What did you see, hear, taste, touch and smell?” In addition to the senses, ask them about their introspective world. If they don’t tell you much about their feelings, ask follow-up questions.
— What did you want?
— What did you fear?
— What got in the way?
— What did you do in order to get back on track?
For example, if they say, “When we moved, I felt disoriented.” You could say, “Could you describe where you were and what it looked like.” It might take a few tries but eventually you could change this to, “When I walked into the new house, the painters still had their scaffolding up, the plywood floors were covered in splattered paint and cigarette butts. I started to cry.”
In Part 3b, I continue with suggestions for interviewing strategies that will generate a readable memoir.
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