by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World
Thanksgiving is a banquet for the senses, with a table overflowing with food, and the room overflowing with relatives, now a year older and hopefully wiser. And yet family gatherings often arouse tension. We fear arguments with some visitors or feel a hole where we wish we could see a loved one, or wonder about a new potential spouse. Our anxiety seems ungrateful. This feast ought to be a time of joy. To shift attention to the positive aspects of such meetings look at them as opportunities to learn and share each other’s stories.
Listening, as the saying goes, is an act of love, and your willingness to open up and let their stories in will create a lovely, kind, and energetic atmosphere. But the old conversation patterns have a mind of their own. Instead of hoping the energy will shift, take a leadership role. To steer the conversation in a new direction, you need to prepare.
When you are in a safe, healthy space, right now for example, list a few things you wish you knew about each person. Then, in the press of food and family, if you feel a wave of annoyance coming on, switch it to curiosity. Look at your list, take a deep breath, and ask a question. You might at first feel a moment’s hesitation, like you are being rude for breaking into the old pattern. But the surprise will last just a moment, as the other person adjusts his thinking to focus on your question. By asking them to talk about a specific time in their lives, your curiosity will arouse memories. If you press forward, asserting your real interest, you have a good chance of shifting their attention into a reverie about the good, or strange, or formative times. Their story telling will (hopefully) arouse more interesting emotions than the ones you interrupted.
It’s easier if you get this storytelling focus started early in the day, before the old patterns set in. Broadcast the message that you expect them to tell at least one story that you haven’t heard before. And for best results, make suggestions. It’s almost like pitching them some of the writing prompts you would use to develop your memoir. “Tell us about your first day at your first apartment.” “Tell us about where you were when you saw a beautiful sunset.” If you don’t have time to arrange this before the holiday, do it when you first walk in. Write something up. Claim you need these stories for a writing project you’re working on. (And if you write the stories afterwards, then this claim will be true.)
Once you get the ball rolling, if you feel people steering towards boring territory, say, “The rule today is a story we’ve never heard,” or, “I already knew about that situation. But I can’t picture it. Tell me who else was there, what the walls looked like, what did you smell?” You can lead people away from negative feelings by pushing the clock forward. What happened afterwards? Where did you go next?
And if they get stuck in a story you know, listen to it with fresh ears. See if you can imagine being there with them during their original experience. Your curiosity will instigate new questions that will pop you into a fresh perspective. You could think or blurt out, “Hey, wait a minute. That sounds similar to another time in your life.” Or, “Oh. I didn’t realize that happened so soon after you moved.”
In addition to gaining material for your family storybook, you will achieve immediate benefits. Speakers will feel the unusual sensation that people are actually listening to parts of their lives. This is a warm and disarming sensation, that draws everyone closer and reaches across boundaries. For example, if an old-timer tells you about a youthful experience, it puts them on a level playing field with younger family members. And then, when you give a younger person the floor, they will feel empowered by an audience of adults who are suddenly interested, not in finding fault, but in finding entertainment. And for new couples, visitors, and distant relatives, it will give everyone an opportunity to appreciate this whole person.
To prepare to listen to their stories, think ahead about stories of your own. Dig up a story you’ve never told before. Perhaps you never told it because you feel a little embarrassed. This is good. It’s an opportunity to tell people things about yourself that will give them a more intimate and less formulaic impression. Your willingness to share parts of yourself in a room full of people is a good way to flap your memoir wings. So as you look forward to the Thanksgiving holiday, or any time when extended families get together, use stories to create intimacy, defuse tension, and develop a deeper sense of gratitude for the people in your life.
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