The Best Way To Meet Your Parents
Sometimes it takes two
If you really want to get to know your parents, or a loved one, write their memoirs.
My mom, Bonnie, and I wrote her memoirs and the experience changed the way I think about her as a person. Before Memoirs (BM) she was my imperfect mother. But today, I think of her as a woman who was navigating her way through life, in a different era, making choices that resulted in pride, laughter, tears, or regret. I catch myself comparing my life at forty-four years old to what she was doing when she was forty-four, and every single time I think, whew, I’m so glad I’m not in those shoes. (If I was, I would have eight kids with a ninth on the way, a troubled marriage, a pile of bills, and I’d be struggling with undiagnosed bipolar disorder.) I also learned to accept that her perception is her reality and this makes me more patient when our collective memories or experiences don’t add up.
What I’m trying to say is writing your parent’s memoirs might be one of the best gifts you’ll ever give to yourself. It will be a different gift for each person. In my case, it was forgiveness.
But where to start? How to start? There are many books available on how to write memoirs. I’m sure my process will continue to improve, but for those of you who are thinking about this worthwhile project, here are the steps I take with each of my clients.
For the sake of clarity, let’s assume you want to team up with your mother on her memoirs…
What’s your goal?
The first thing you need to know is why YOU want to help your mom write her memoirs. The second thing you need to know is why SHE wants to write her memoirs.
For example, my goal was to help my mom realize a lifetime dream—writing her memoirs was on her ‘bucket list,’ and secondly, I knew it would be a good project that would keep her busy while she adjusted to her first year in assisted living. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about my mom so my initial goal was purely one of support.
My mom’s goal was to reminisce about her life and pull it together in a thoughtful way that would 1) share her hindsight about her own childhood; 2) explain some of her choices as a young woman and mother; 3) apologize to her children, and; 4) share a few stories about each of her kids.
When you hear your mother’s goals, you might be tempted to contradict her or make suggestions. My advice? Don’t. They are her goals. You get to set your own. And both of you might adjust them as you go. That’s the beauty of the ‘partnership’—you get to learn, adapt, and grow together.
Who will get a copy?
Agree up front who the audience will be. Is the book intended for family and friends only, or does the above goal include publishing for public consumption.
For my mom, the audience was only ever intended to be family and friends. In fact, my mom made it clear she only wanted copies for each of her children, and if any of her grandchildren wanted to read her book, they’d have to borrow their mom or dad’s copy. She knew she wanted books given to her brother and a handful of long-term friends. And of course, with her permission, she lets me blog about snippets.
Get a digital recorder or recording app
Recording your conversations with your mother is going to be one of the best things you can do for this project. Recorders come in handy when one story naturally leads to another, or if thoughts, feelings, or hindsight are shared. Just push a button. She can even record a story alone when a memory comes to mind.
Keep the digital recorder (or the app on your smartphone) on hand at all times and get in the habit of using it. You might think a discussion is irrelevant, but conversations of this type almost always generate reflections of the past. You can even have two devices for each of you and convince her to wear one on a lanyard.
There are several digital recorders and apps available. I’ll write a future newsletter on the subject, but until then, if you have questions reach out to me.
Gather general information
The below information is helpful to have on hand when you begin to transcribe your mother’s life stories, and it also allows you to recognize names and ‘character’s in any recordings.
- Your mother’s full name
- Your mother’s birthdate and place of birth
- Names of parents
- Name(s) of spouse(s)
- Name(s) of sibling(s)
- Names of children
- Names of friends, including pets
- Cities/States she has lived in and the rough time frames
- Marriage (and divorce) date(s) and location(s)
- Dates and names of relevant deaths
- Other special events such as graduations
- Careers; locations and time frames if relevant
A picture speaks 1,000 words
If you want to include pictures in the memoirs, now is a good time to pull them together. Given your mother’s age, I’m talking about printed photos and film.
Important: leave the photos in the albums, envelopes, or stacks you find them. Most envelopes are dated. The pictures gather over time. Most families naturally store pictures in chronological order—TA-DA, a timeline at your fingertips.
Pictures are such an easy and interesting way to pull together someone’s life story. Not only will this help you find the pictures you want to include in the finished book, they will also spark points of discussion and stories to share.
If your mother kept a diary, journal, or scrapbook, half of your work is already done. But we all know the rule about diaries—NEVER read one without permission (and no, it doesn’t count if your mom read yours without permission when you were younger). Your mom can leaf through the pages and select items she wants to share or write about. Or maybe she’ll hand it over to you. Diaries are a gold mine for triggering memories and stories to include in the memoirs.
Writing prompts and notebooks
Start keeping two lists. One list is stories or questions that come to your mind. That’s right. Just keep the list with you and add a bullet point and key words to remind you of a topic you want to explore for the book. The second list is the one kept by your mom.
Each of you, without a timeline in mind, should write reminders of things to share. This way, when you sit down to write or record, you won’t feel pressured to come up with a topic. Just pick one from the list, tell the story, check it off the list, and move on. If you remember something later, even days later on a particular story, record it. You can always add it to the draft in the proper timeframe.
For example, things my mom’s list may have included:
- roller sets w/girls at beauty academy
- Peggy and the missing black olives
- Rick with Ma’s Chickens
- 1st apartment in Minneapolis
- 1947 – Jackie Robinson
- black Lab, Duke
- ‘Alice Blue Gown’
- moonshine still
- Richard paints the door orange
- Skunk oil
My list mostly included questions such as how my mom met my dad, or who were her closest friends in high school. I also used my Vitality Stories Interview questions. And you might like this list of questions by Brendon Burchard.
See? Just enough to jog the memory, remove pressure of what to discuss, and start the memoirs. There are many resources online that you can ‘Google’ to come up with talking points.
Drafts, sequence, and patience
Forget telling and drafting the story in order. The key is to get the information, however it may come about. Trying to remember and tell everything in order from the beginning might freeze you both in your tracks. The beauty of writing software and computers is that you can always move paragraphs and pages around. Just get the words on paper. But to that point…
Have you ever wanted to write a book? A poem? Or paint? Then you know the most frustrating hurdle can be the blank screen or canvas. Writing the first word, making the first mark, can be challenging. It’s no different for someone recording his or her life story. Starting the conversation and telling the first story is like being a deer in the headlight, or having stage fright. All of a sudden, one of you might have a burning desire to clean out the garage or organize your cupboards—anything to avoid starting.
Some writers set goals such as writing 100 words each day and then increasing it week by week. I suggest starting with the beginning of a story and if she wants to finish it the next day, that’s just fine. If she remembers more detail a week later, record the details then. Every project deserves patience and a draft.
Leverage family and friends
Your TOP SECRET weapon is family and friends. Invite them over and turn on the recorder. Encourage them to share memories and let the conversation go where it may. You know family…you just never know what they’ll say. If nothing of value comes up, you can erase the recording, but if something does, especially a story your mother forgot, it’s a gold mine and a lot of fun. Ask guests and family to share favorite stories, or stories important to them about your mother. Take advantage of birthday parties and holidays to prompt sharing.
I hope my process helps and makes the endeavor less overwhelming. Once you choose a digital recorder or recording app, you will find hitting ‘start’ becomes a habit. Just capture it all. You’ll be surprised how much a small discussion can evolve and how much you will learn about your mother.
Your ‘start’ begins with the push of a button. You don’t have to rush out and transcribe all of the recordings. You’ll have time for that later. Capturing the stories, collecting the memories…that’s where you start. In the future, I’ll share my process on managing the recordings, transcription, and publishing.
If you really want to get to know your parents, or a loved one, write their memoirs. It’s the best way to meet them and perhaps you’ll even know yourself better as a result.