Give Thanks for Your Family Stories

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.

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

Tell stories for more thankful holiday gatherings

by Jerry Waxler

The holidays bring together a mélange of generations, family units, and significant others, bonded by blood, marriage, love, and shared life experience. Then why did I feel more dread than joy? I didn’t understand my own reactions to the holidays until I started writing family stories, and then the answer leapt off the page. There were just too many stories in one room. The chiefs in their own homes are now guests. Siblings connect in a secret code that sounds foreign to their spouses. Fully grown adults behave like children, and kids who are ordinarily the cutest, now must compete with even smaller ones. The clash of roles has always confused me, and I’m not alone. Many people struggle to sort out their feelings about holiday gatherings.

Now that I see the problem, I’ve worked out a solution. My interest in storytelling helps me focus on the interesting, curious, or historical features of my clan. By looking for their stories, I become engaged with people more intimately, and my curiosity reveals who we are as individuals and as a group. I’m not claiming writing is a panacea, but it has helped me stay on top, like a surfer riding the energy rather than falling in. Here are some suggestions for applying this strategy to your own holiday gathering.

Connect with each person by writing scenes
Before the holidays, in your imagination go around the table, visualizing each person. Watch the memories that play through your mind, and when a scene jumps out, describe it. Don’t worry how important the scene is. Even if it seems trivial, write about it. What did you see? Who was there? What happened first? Then what? Your writing exercise will open you to a deeper channel through which you can learn about your relationship.

For example, I try to imagine my father at the holiday dinner. At first, all I see is a tangle of people eating, drinking, and getting through the hour. Then I shift to a different family gathering, Passover which combines a feast with a ritual service. My father tells us to read a passage from the book of instructions. Then we do things like dip a toothpick into radish and taste it. While the book provides stage directions, my father is the director. This is interesting. I’m not accustomed to seeing him in that role and find this memory soothing. By writing that scene, I cast my father in a light that would help me relate to him at the Thanksgiving meal.

If you feel anger towards someone, that’s more problematic. The initial temptation is to complain, but that only makes you feel worse. Step back and with your storytelling curiosity look for scenes that evoke a range of emotions, such as drama, passion, or pleasure. If you suspect it’s going to sound like another round of ranting, continue brainstorming until you light on a memory that sparks your interest. Then tell the story. Describe the external circumstances, the furniture, the smells of cooking, the sound of voices or clatter of dishes. Out of the scene will emerge a more complex picture of your connection with this person. The exercise may help you develop a more sophisticated container into which you can pour your heart.

Your interest in people changes the dynamics
Family preconceptions remain frozen in time, so older relatives see younger ones as if they are children, and younger ones see elders as the powerful parental figures they once were. These prescribed roles force interactions into a groove that confines each of you into only a sliver of your whole personality. Break past these limits by telling people you are writing about their lives. Ask the questions you will someday wish you had. As you sit there with paper and pen or tape recorder, eyes wide with interest, the focus shifts. Now you are empowering people to be themselves, in toto, opening a door into their real lives, not just their ritualized position in the clan. Even though you are talking about the past, your interactions in the present become more authentic and intimate.

To evoke vivid responses ask for sensory descriptions. If you can get them to wade through a pile of leaves as they walked to elementary school, or describe the dresser and mirror in their childhood bedroom they will probably become energized with fresh stories, rather than the routine ones they usually tell. Test the question by posing it to yourself. If it stirs up memories, there’s a good chance it will work on your relatives. If it leaves you blank, try something more specific. If the atmosphere during the larger gathering is not conducive to reverie, pull your interviewee aside before or after the meal and talk in a more private setting.

Write about those you miss
The holidays are a ritual time to come together as a tribe, but what about the people you won’t be with? They might be cut off by a feud, a death or divorce, or they are on a battlefield, in a hospital, a nursing home, or a prison. Longing is itself a form of connection that links people at a distance. Stories go further by reminding you of the love and joy and other qualities about them that are the reason you miss them in the first place. Write about a peaceful time, or a peak time, or any story that awakens your connection.

By looking for fresh ways to describe the people around you, you will gain poise not only for the day. You’ll generate insights and written passages that help you through the year. And you just might find some lovely bonding opportunities with the people in your life.