4 Ideas for Family Interviews
I come back to this quote from William Zinsser again and again for its poignancy and power:
“One of the saddest sentences I know is ‘I wish I had asked my mother about that.’ ”
How does that make you feel? If you have lost your parent(s) or other elders in your family, it can be like a punch to the gut. If, on the other hand, older family members are still around, I hope it creates a sense of urgency in you—to wonder about their personal history, to ask questions and, most importantly, to engage in meaningful conversation about the past.
I suggest recording these conversations—perhaps to transcribe later for use in a book, or perhaps to be edited down so your children’s children can hear snippets of their ancestors’ stories in their own words. There are plenty of digital recording apps out there; just don’t forget to use two different recording methods to ensure those memories are, in fact, captured (trust me, technical errors happen…and the feeling of losing those stories, well, it’s not good).
Which interview approach is right for you?
1 - group interviews
For families with multiple generations or family members who see each other only infrequently, group interview sessions during holiday get-togethers can be a fun and fruitful process. How to fit them in amidst all the holiday preparations, though? Some ideas:
After Thanksgiving dessert, keep the coffee flowing and the cookies on hand, but make a voice recorder the new table centerpiece. Share your purpose with your family (“I love hearing our family stories, and want to make sure we capture them for the future”), then ask for volunteers to begin the storytelling.
Do you have family members spending the night after a holiday celebration? Send someone out for bagels the next morning, and turn brunch into a reminiscence session. Keep it casual but focused to get the best stories out of your guests.
At a family reunion or other big gathering, set aside a room specifically for story gathering. Either designate one person as the ringleader (if you have a de facto family historian in your family, this will be right up their alley) or pair people together who you think will have meaningful conversations. Make a list of topics on a white board (or put them on slips of paper for guests to pick, à la charades) and give out time slots for the interview sessions. There is a fair amount of upfront organization involved here, but once the ball is rolling it’s fairly easy to maintain momentum.
2 - kids interviewing grandparents
Setting up “official” interviews with grandparents is a wonderful home-schooling or scouting project for tweens and teens. Have them ask grandparents to gather a few favorite photos in advance to use to help get the conversation flowing. You just might be surprised how many stories are revealed that even you had never heard before (there’s just something about sharing with the grandkids!!).
3 - regular conversation dates
Consider visiting with a close relative regularly to gather stories—perhaps bi-weekly coffee chats or monthly pot-luck dinners, each with a theme (think childhood adventures, momentous decisions, the war years, becoming a parent, etc.). I wish my mother were still alive for me to have such dates with her!
If you have a relative in assisted living, for example, such “interview” sessions may help with their self-esteem and general attitude, as well as giving you both something to focus on rather than day-to-day drudgery.
Keep the pressure off by maintaining a conversational tone throughout your get-togethers. While you are indeed trying to elicit memorable stories, the time together should itself be enjoyable.
4 - telling your own stories
Maybe YOU are the one who wants your stories captured? If you are not a writer, see if there is someone in your circle who might sit with you to converse. It might seem like a good idea to turn on a tape recorder and just start talking, though my experience indicates that having an interested listener—someone nodding or smiling, asking follow-up questions—is a compelling motivator!
If your child or a close friend is unable to fulfill this role, you can always set up a session with a personal historian such as myself (I consider it a privilege to listen to your stories!).
Sharing stories is an endeavor with immediate value, bringing joy to the participants and connecting family members more closely.
I would implore you to go a step further, too, and do something with your stories to ensure they are around for the next generation.