Parent’s Memoir Part 3b, Guide for Ghost Writer’s Interview

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.

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

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.

Break taboos

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) []. 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 Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Parent’s Memoir Part 3a, Guiding a Ghost Writer’s Interview

by Jerry Waxler
This is part 3a of the essay, “Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?” Click here for part 2, Answering Parents’ Objections to Writing Their Memoir.

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

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.

Interview Prompts

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.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Answering Parents’ Objections to Writing Their Memoir

by Jerry Waxler
This is part 2 of the essay, “Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?” Click here for part 1. Click here for part 3a, Guiding a Ghost Writer’s Interview, and Click here for part 3b

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

When you ask your parents if you can write their history, they might block you with statements like: “Let sleeping dogs lie,” or “I can’t remember all of that,” or “No one would care.” Instead of letting these objections frustrate you, use them as conversation starters. “Really?” you say. “Tell me more about what you mean.” Let them explain why remembering makes them uncomfortable. By quietly listening, you will change the mood from a debate to a collaboration, and will shed more light on their relationship to the past. When they finish, offer comforting, reassuring reasons why you want to work with them to overcome these obstacles. Here are a few insights that might help you address some common concerns about writing a memoir.

Writing my memoir means my life is over
After a visit with my parents, I stood up to go. My mother expressed her frustrated with the lack of physical affection between me and my father and insisted that we hug. As I put my arms around him, he laughed nervously and exclaimed. “What? Am I dying?” He implied that a hug meant the end of his life, when in fact it was intended to be a celebration. Many people make a similar mistake about memoir writing, assuming it means that life is over. When you take the time to write one, you realize that it lets you reap life’s lessons and joys.

I’m too boring
When I grew up, my parents apparently believed we ought to hide anything that makes us look different. They wanted to look average. People who grew up in that generation became so accustomed to pretending they were like everyone else, that they came to believe it themselves.

In the twenty first century, our fascination with memoirs has flipped that convention upside down. In the Memoir Age, we have become curious about other people and assume they are curious about us. Instead of hiding messy emotions in order to appear boring, we reveal internal conflicts that bring us to life.

Hidden within ordinary life, you will discover that you are utterly unique. For example, my childhood in a row home in Philadelphia seemed thoroughly ordinary. Perhaps my after-school job at my dad’s drugstore made me different from most of my peers. I didn’t know anyone else who worked for their father. Digging deeper, I recall my dad’s brother who had achondroplasia, or dwarfism. When I was a teenager, I went with Uncle Harry to help him collect rent from the apartment buildings my grandfather owned, and I felt disturbed by the children who stopped and stared at his short legs and head too large for his body. Harry’s problem was visible to everyone, but Dad’s nephew, Jules, was another matter. Handsome, athletic, and a brilliant scholar, Jules graduated medical school by the age of 21, and was a psychiatrist by the time he was 24, when some secret turmoil caused him to hang himself. The family tried to cover up the tragedy, writing Jules out as if he never existed. Before the memoir age, it seemed natural to hide these facts. Now, I wish my father had been a memoirist, and left a record of how these complex experiences made him feel.

I have read and studied 200 memoirs, and continue to be fascinated by the enormous variety of human experience. Memoir authors write about growing up, about families, hardship, war, travel, spirituality, and so on. By sharing their authors’ lives, memoirs promise to deepen and expand our ability to live together on this planet.

I refuse to criticize my parents
To write about your parents, you must break down two sets of facades. The ones that block them from admitting to you that they are real people, and the ones that block them from admitting their own parents are real, as well.

Many people believe it’s a sin to criticize their parents. As a result they are stuck with shallow, unexplored images. I am glad that we are beginning to open our minds to an honest evaluation of those relationships . According to child psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, we need our parents’ stories in order to stay healthy ourselves. Authentic stories allow us to honor our parents for who they really are, rather than some glossy, idealized image.

To open up about their younger years, your parents will have to accurately portray their relationship with their parents. Certainly they might need some convincing. Let them see that you are not looking to blame anyone but only want to understand the realities in which your ancestors lived. By convincing them to reveal their childhood experience, you will be encouraging them to develop more compassionate relationships with their parents just as you are trying to do yourself.

What’s the point of returning to the past?
At first it might seem logical that writing a memoir would detract from focus on the present. However, almost everyone already keeps a photo album for the purpose of hanging on to the past. Flipping through the album, you glimpse echoes of the past and savor its pleasure.

Beneath the smiles in those photos were more complex, ambiguous feelings. Writing awakens that complexity. Perhaps fear of writing about the past is a way to try to resist the pain that might be lurking under the surface. If your parents are attempting to make hard times disappear by pretending they never happened, their strategy cannot possibly succeed. Burying emotional pain is like burying toxic waste. When it emerges from its hiding place, it is still poisonous. By writing about it, you can, help them disarm it and find embedded lessons, forgotten friendships, and the strength that carried them through.

By getting those earlier times on paper, you give them the opportunity to add meaning and order to what otherwise might seem like a chaotic batch of memories. I have found that memoir writing is compatible with a vibrant, energetic focus on the present moment.

My sister has it all wrong
With stunning regularity my mom and her sister argued about their family memories. Mom said something about her parents’ unhappy marriage and my aunt would vehemently disagree. “That’s not the way it happened.” A battle ensued, each of them intent to prove her version to be true and the other false.

To accommodate heated differences of opinion, interview the warring parties separately. Listen openly to both versions. You will no doubt favor one interpretation over the other, but keep your favoritism to yourself. Maintain harmony by validating each person’s version of the truth. “That’s the way you remember it. I’m okay with that.”

Learn more about the pressures in the family by trying to understand how the hot button works. What words or details throw them into a tizzy? If you can tiptoe around the edgy topic, you may be able to gain insight that helps portray the pressure without raising hackles. If you hoped to learn the Real Truth, such irreconcilable disagreements might frustrate you. However, memoirs do not offer an absolute version of truth, but only each person’s best recollection. That’s what memoir writing is all about. Delving into their recollection helps you understand more about them. And they played such an important part in your life, you learn about yourself as well.  In the next part of this essay, I offer insights into the process of interviewing them.


Click here to read about “be here now” while writing a memoir.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.