Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Lives like snowflakes

It’s fun to be immersed in other people’s long lives once again.

My new company, Concord River Publishing, recently signed on to write a community memoir at a nursing home in Newburyport. Last week I did the interviews – twenty in all – and this week I’m drafting the stories.

It’s my second full-scale community memoir, and I wondered as I approached the project if the stories might start to sound familiar. Last year I wrote about 47 people in their eighties and nineties at a continuing care community in Bedford; now I’m talking with twenty people at a very similar facility on the North Shore. Demographically, the two groups have much in common: their age, their educational and professional backgrounds, their predominantly East Coast roots.

But as I dove into the interviews, I was reminded once again of how no two stories end up being alike. This set of seniors includes military veterans and scientists, professors and doctors, homemakers and gardeners and boaters, people widowed young and couples celebrating sixty or more years of marriage. Some had children and some didn’t; some lost children.

So yes, of course there are commonalities. But just as each participant has a different name and face and history, each story manifests differently, because people recall different details from their lives, impute importance to different aspects of their experiences, and react to twists of fate with different attitudes.

It’s only our second project, but I don’t anticipate this work ever growing dull. “Everyone has a story to tell,” my colleagues and I say when we approach potential clients. And perhaps this task on which I’ve set out is a little like collecting snowflakes. Many are similar….and yet each is ultimately unique. My mission is to catch each story like a snowflake and examine it until I can extract the essence of how it is different from every single other story out there.

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