Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Telling stories, hearing stories

In the midst of writing and revising family memoirs for three different sets of clients, with two more on the back burner, I’ve learned more about memoir writing in the past few months than in all my years as a writer up to now.

The three active projects involve two couples in their eighties and one widow in her nineties. Perhaps not surprisingly, given their similarities in age, certain common themes arise, even though there are numerous differences concerning the specifics of their lives. Differences include where they were raised; where they live now; what their professional lives have involved; the number and ages of their children; their religious backgrounds. Commonalities include military service, a career path that began with manual labor and brought them eventually into the business world, the issues specific to immigrants (in one case) or children of immigrants (in the other two); losing a parent at an early age. Other details linking their stories arose unexpectedly, surprising me: two different memoir subjects mentioned the Horn & Hardart Automat – one woman frequented the one in New York City as a child; another couple visited the one in Philadelphia as graduate students – and two different subjects had connections to General Claire Lee Chennault and the Flying Tigers.

From each of them, I’ve learned a lot about life in America in the 20th century, although each of my subjects experienced it differently: some as hardworking college students, some as soldiers stationed overseas. I’ve learned about a variety of perspectives on parenting and grandparenting.

And as their memoirist, I’ve also learned anew the importance of listening. Writing a memoir is a wonderful project for a senior because they are left with a book for their children, grandchildren, and future descendants to read, but what I am increasingly coming to understand is that the process itself matters. Last week I received an email from the daughter of my 91-year-old client that said this:
“Yesterday i called my mom. It was quite apparent to me that she sounded more vibrant and alive than I have heard her in a very long time. I asked what was she doing and she told me about writing a memoir of her life.  What a wonderful thing to do - she has had quite a life!  This appears to have brought new vitality to her.”

It reminded me that the process itself is as worthwhile as the end result. All of my clients have children and other family members who willingly and eagerly listen to their stories, but there’s something different about narrating a life in chronological order. Most families tell sporadic anecdotes, not unbroken narratives, and sometimes children hear their parents’ stories often enough that they stop listening. Having the opportunity to hear a life story from its beginnings gives me a perspective that isolated anecdotes usually lack.

Two years ago, I worked with residents at a nursing home on a community memoir project. A couple of months after the book was published, I saw the obituary of one of the participants in the newspaper. I felt privileged to think that I was probably one of the last people who heard her tell a story about her life. She had loving children and grandchildren; I don’t mean to suggest no one took an interest in her, but I had the privilege of sitting down with her without other distractions to hear exactly the life story she wanted to tell me, a story she was most likely telling for the last time.

Telling our stories matters, but listening to them does too. In my work as a memoir writer, I’ve become a dedicated listener. And I’m grateful anew for every story I have the opportunity to hear.

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