A student in my Memoir class recently asked for some tips before interviewing her parent for a family history. It’s a common dilemma: “Where do I start??”
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, of course. But here are the suggestions I sent her – I hope they help you, too!
(1) People: One easy place to begin is to ask the person to describe people who were important in their life. (Typically you’ll hear about a parent, a grandparent, or a teacher — someone your subject was especially fond of, or who influenced his/her life. Be sure to ask what that special person looked like, and what their personality was like. Is there a particular event your subject especially remembers that involved this special person in their life? One story here often triggers another!)
(2) Places: Ask about a place that was especially memorable when the person was growing up. (You might hear, for example, about their first house; a swimming hole; their grade school. Or you might prompt stories about a special vacation, a grandparent’s farm, or even a favorite ice cream parlor. Often it’s easiest to start talking about a happy spot — perhaps a treehouse where the local kids used to gather! Ask them to describe whatever they most remember about that place.)
(3) Historic Context: Our life stories don’t take place in a vacuum. Ask about the time period when your interviewee was growing up. What was going on in the world, and how did that affect their own life? (You might hear tales about the desperation of job-seekers during the Depression; the lack of sugar during World War II; air raid drills in school during the Cold War; or long gas lines during the ’70s. Find out what movies and movie stars were their favorites, and which songs were most popular. See if he/she has an old photo showing them wearing the latest fashion of the day!)
All of those topics make great places to start. But listen and go with the flow of the conversation. Sometimes even basic openers like “Where were you born? Who were your parents?” will trigger a flood of stories! So don’t cut that off if it happens.
Then just keep collecting: those little vignettes will eventually tie together into a whole life’s story!
Like more memoir-writing tips? Check out our fun 28-page LifeStory Workbook here.