No one expected it.
While climbing into his hot tub, my healthy 87- year-old father-in-law slipped, fell, and broke a rib. He began internal bleeding that the doctors couldn’t stop. In two weeks, Gene was gone.
Fortunately, we had taken time a few months earlier to record Gene’s life story, and discovered some amazing facts. He was a semi-pro baseball player, a fine watercolorist, and a US Marine. As a marketing executive for Kaiser and later Del Monte, he worked on national advertising campaigns with mega-stars of his day, including Joan Crawford, Debbie Reynolds, Stan Musial, Lloyd Bridges and others.
We recorded Gene’s life story on two occasions: once at a small family dinner, then during a living-room interview a few months later.
We transcribed the audio files of the recordings, added pictures, and then uploaded the whole package to a new free web site that helps people write great personal and family stories. (See resource section,below). Gene’s family and friends can view his story and add comments or photos if they wish. The profile that we co-created with Gene is a celebration of his life. It’s also a direct, meaningful connection with his daughters and their grandchildren. Anyone can create a life story for themselves or a loved one. It’s as simple as setting aside some time and doing some careful listening.
I’ve helped hundreds of people across the US, Canada, and Mexico capture their life stories. Based on hundreds of hours of interviews, I’ve boiled down my experience into three key tips, and the 50 most productive questions you can use for success.
Success Tip #1: Pre-Interview Preparation is Key
To get the most from your family history session, be as prepared as possible.
. Inform the subject of the purpose of the interview, who will see it, and how it will be used · Prepare your questions in advance · Set aside a quiet time and place free from interruptions
· It’s a good idea to use a voice or video recorder; test all equipment thoroughly before starting
· It’s often useful to use a tape or digital recorder and transcribe the dictation
· Photos, mementos, or other visual aids are great memory-joggers. Ask your subject to prepare some in advance
· Listen attentively and gently; ask questions of clarification
· Don’t try to force the subject into something they are uncomfortable discussing
Success Tip #2: Be Flexible and Creative
When I first started doing life story interviews, it seemed as if people spent the majority of time talking about their early days. As I got more experience, I began to realize that most people have one, two or possibly three key defining times in their lives. For many, it’s childhood. For a lot of men, it’s WWII, Korea, or Vietnam. The defining moments emerge like finding a gold nugget in a streambed. Be sensitive to these defining moments and episodes. Listen extra-carefully, and ask questions. Often a deeper portrait of an individual emerges, laden with rich experiences, values, beliefs, and layers of complexity. If you don’t complete the interview in one sitting, set a date to resume your conversation later
Success Tip #3: Organize Life Stories into Chapters
Most people (yes, even shy ones) love to be the center of attention and share stories from their lives. There are two challenges for a family historian. The first is to capture the stories in a structured, logical way. The second is to make sure that the stories are as complete as possible and contain facts (names, dates, places), fully-drawn characters, a story line, and perhaps even a finale. The GreatLifeStories web site divides the life experience into 12 “chapters” that follow the progression of many lives. On the web site, each chapter contains anywhere from 10 to 25 questions. (Below, I’ve selected the 50 questions that usually get the best results). Don’t worry; you don’t have to ask them all. In fact, after one or two questions, you may not have to ask anymore-the interview takes on a life of its own.
The most important objective is to make sure you cover as many of the chapter headings as possible. The chapter headings are logical and somewhat chronological in order: Beginnings, School Days, Off to Work, Romance and Marriage, and so forth. Feel free to add your own chapters, as well. The 12-chapter system is a great way to organize both the interview, as well as the life story write up, video, or audio recording.
CHAPTER 1: In the Beginning
1. What were your parents and grandparents full names, dates of birth, places of birth.
2. What were the occupations of your parents?
3. How many children were in your family? Where were you in the lineup?
4. Generally speaking, what was your childhood like?
5. What one or two stories do you remember most clearly about your childhood?
6. Are there any particularly happy, funny, sad or instructive lessons you learned while growing up?
CHAPTER 2: In Your Neighborhood
1. What was it like where you grew up?
2. Describe your most important friendships
3. Where and how did “news of your neighborhood” usually flow?
CHAPTER 3 School Days
1. Be sure to capture names and dates attended of grammar, high, colleges, trade or technical schools
2. What are your earliest school day memories?
3. Are there any teachers or subjects you particularly liked or disliked?
4. What did you learn in those first years of school that you would like to pass along to the next generation?
5. Were you involved in sports, music, drama, or other extra-curricular activities?
CHAPTER 4: Off to Work
1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
2. What was your first job, and how did you get it?
3. What was your first boss like? What did you learn from him or her?
4. Did you leave? Quit? Get promoted? Get fired?
5. Were you ever out of work for a long time? If so, how did you handle it?
CHAPTER 5 Romance & Marriage
1. What do you recall about your first date?
2. How did you know you were really in love?
3. Tell me how you “popped the question,” or how it was popped to you.
4. Tell me about your wedding ceremony. What year? Where? How many attended? Honeymoon?
5. Tell me about starting your family.
6. Were you married more than once? How often?
CHAPTER 6: Leisure and Travel
1. What were the most memorable family vacations or trips you can recall?
2. What leisure time activities are you involved with?
3. What are your greatest accomplishments in this field?
CHAPTER 7: Places of Worship
1. Do you follow any religious tradition?
2. If so which one, and what is it like?
3. Have you ever changed faiths?
4. What role do your beliefs play in your life today?
5. What would you tell your children about your faith?
CHAPTER 8 War & Peace
1. Were you a volunteer, drafted or a conscientious objector?
2. If you didn’t serve, what do you recall about being on the home front during the war?
3. What key moments do you recall about your service?
4. What would you tell today’s young soldiers, sailors and fliers?
CHAPTER 9 Triumph and Tragedy
1. What were the most joyous, fulfilling times of your life?
2. Any sad, tragic or difficult times you’d care to share such as losing a loved one, a job, or something you cared about?
3. What lifelong lessons did you learn from these tough times? Joyous times?
4. Were there any moments you recall as true breakthroughs in any area of your life?
5. If you could do one thing differently in your life, what would that be?
CHAPTER 10 Words of Wisdom
1. What have you learned over your lifetime that you’d like to share with the younger generation?
2. People will sometimes repeat aphorisms such as “honesty is the best policy.” If they do, be sure to ask how they learned that life lesson.
CHAPTER 11: Funnybones
1. What were your family’s favorite jokes or pranks?
2. Who is, or was, the family comedian? “Straight” man?
3. What’s the funniest family story you remember?
CHAPTER 12 Thank You
1. What are you most grateful for you your life?
2. How have you taught your children to be grateful?
3. Are there items or places that mark special gratitude for the ones you love? What are they? What are their stories?
In closing, it is always a good idea to ask an open-ended question such as:” Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you would care to comment on?” You’ll often be surprised and delighted at the answers!
For many more tips on how to capture precious family history, visit www.GreatLifeStories.com