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.

Three writing prompts to flesh in memories

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

When I explore my memories of adolescence, one of two things happens. Either I draw a blank or I land on a random bit of my past that contributes little to my memoir. Darn that mind. Why can’t I just sit down and develop the story of me? To move past this impasse and extract relevant information from the confusing cloud of memories, I rely on a series of writing prompts.

Writing Prompt 1: To learn about a scene, pick a detail and stretch

I want to remember high school which is hard for me because that whole period is foggy. I’ve found that if I have one fact, I can start from there and extend my memory from one fact to the next. So I stir the pot and a single image floats by – home room, where a teacher took attendance, made announcements, and then sent us on our way. I remember nothing. Then I see one person. I sat next to a guy named Wanenchak. But I don’t remember anything about him. Well, I do remember a little. He was trim, had light hair, and was a nice guy. Bit by bit, one fact leads to another, putting words and descriptions on hazy times. Wanenchak was Greek Orthodox. I didn’t know what that meant so I asked him. That’s one more fact about him, and it also divulges an interesting fact about me. I was terribly withdrawn, so the fact that I remember his religion tells me that despite my lack of attention to fellow classmates, I was interested in this dimension. While the exercise has not yet burst open the doors to an unforgettable scene, it did yield some raw material I didn’t have when I started.

Writing prompt 2: List key events, transitions, and influences
Even though high school feels vague, if I step back and scan those four years, highlights emerge from the haze. These noteworthy facts don’t in themselves tell a story, but they add to my understanding and perhaps will provide valuable raw material. Here’s a list I developed by looking for major events.

  • Influential teachers: Mr. Warshaw, my ninth grade math teacher started me on a path of love for math, and Mr. Hofkin, the science teacher in my senior year, established my curiosity about physics.
  • Sports: I never played any ball sports, but since I was an incessant walker, I hoped I could survive the rigors of track. I was wrong. A few weeks of waking up before dawn to train for track and field I had to drop out with excruciating shin splints.
  • My failure to stick with the English honors program: Despite my passion for reading, I never really understood what English teachers were trying to get me to do, so while I remained in the math and science honors class I was excluded from English. This always made me feel like an outsider.
  • Crash! I went on two dates in four years. One of my two dates ended in a car crash when I was so distracted I ran a red light.

Writing Prompt 3: To find the framework, look for desire
To create a story worth reading, I’m going to need emotions. I can’t write about romance. I didn’t have any. It was an all-boys high school and I worked every weekend at my dad’s drugstore. Where else can I look for drama? I ask myself, “What did I want?” and in answer, I see my two friends, Joe and Ed. I desperately wanted to be accepted by these guys. So I try to find scenes that represent my desire.

Joe was a strikingly handsome soccer player, and second in our all academic school. His dad was a steelworker, and the large family lived in a small row home, three kids to a room. One day in the lunch room, without provocation or warning, Joe threw a glass of chocolate milk on my clean white shirt. Standing there feeling defiled, with the brown liquid soaking into my chest, I searched his face for some clue that might explain why he had done it. Instead of apologizing, he seemed amused and curious, as if he was studying my response.

In another scene, I was in my kitchen at home talking to my friend Ed on the phone. We all lived pretty far away from each other because Central High in Philadelphia was a citywide school, and kids commuted there from all over the city. Ed was a Jewish intellectual who was becoming increasingly committed to his religion. He had asked me what I believed in, and I didn’t offer a clear enough answer. He told me I was worthless because I don’t believe in something enough to die for it. I started to cry.

These scenes are more than interesting moments. They build the framework of a story about three 16 year old boys trying to use their developing intellect to understand the morality of life. I’m ahead of Joe. At least I don’t need to experiment to find out what it feels like to hurt a friend. But I’m not yet up to Ed. Even though his delivery is cruel, he’s right. I haven’t yet figured out what I believe.


Out my hazy memories of high school I unearth more and more raw material, and begin to see a structure. This is the power of writing prompts. They stimulate thoughts along a particular line, and shake loose a variety of memories and ideas I didn’t even realize were in there. I brainstorm at the detail level to describe characters and settings. I brainstorm highlights, the main events that provide substance. And to find the emotion that propels me through those events I look for desire. Gradually I begin to gather the pieces of a compelling story.

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