Writing Prompts for Life Story Vignettes: Self Interview

In Part One of our Life Story Vignettes Writing Prompts series, we offered five specific exercises for writing about your memories by using all of your senses. Today in Part Two we give you guidance on conducting a self interview as an entry point to your stories.

self reflection through asking oneself questions is a good way to begin memoir writing

Getting to Know You

An oft-recommended exercise for first-time novelists is to “interview” their main characters: Imagine these fictional beings sitting before you, answering a list of questions of your making. By getting to know them, the thinking goes, the writer will be able to flesh out multi-dimensional characters with back-story, quirks and all.

Well, you are the main character of any memoir writing you take on. You know yourself, of course, but it’s a rare soul who sees himself objectively, or who looks upon herself with clear eyes.

So imagine you have been invited to sit across from Barbara Walters. You’re in a cushiony chair, glass of water within reach, ready to take on the tough questions. Ms. Walters, as you presumably know, is well known for making her guests cry, laugh, and gush as they open up about things they rarely if ever have discussed.


Preparing Your Questions

This is one occasion where I will not be offering up suggestions for questions! You must play the role of interviewer and interviewee here.

  • Be sure to ask the tough questions.

  • Ask follow-ups!

  • Probe beyond one-word answers.

  • Be thorough, asking questions about your past, present, and future.

  • Think about what you wish people knew about you—and consider answering those questions you wish people perhaps didn’t know, too. Open yourself up to the possibilities.

Generating your list of questions is as challenging a part of this writing assignment as answering those questions will be. Consider this: If you were a journalist about to conduct an interview with somebody famous, you would do your research first, and craft questions to shed light on some of the things you discovered.

Do the same for yourself. Record a list of milestones, big decisions from your life, and key relationships that might be worthwhile to explore. At least some of your questions should develop from here.

You might even consider including some questions that you truly don’t know the answer to yet—questions that will spur you to real introspection, and result in interesting answers that will no doubt prove fruitful for more in-depth exploration in writing.


Proceeding with Your “Interview”

Unless you are a Robin Williams wannabe, chances are you are not going to role-play both characters in this pseudo interview (if you do, please videotape and share—I’d love to see it!). Rather, you have two obvious choices:

  1. Read your questions aloud to yourself, then answer aloud, recording your self-interview with a recording app on your smart phone or with a traditional mini-cassette recorder.

    Benefit of this approach: It is often easier to talk at length than to write, and this method is more apt to retain your colloquialisms and the flavor of your voice.

    Drawback: If you are going to use this as part of further writing, you will need to transcribe the recording to have it in print.

  2. Type, or write, your answers following each question.

    Benefit of this approach: Writing something longhand is itself a contemplative act, and doing so here allows for periodic pauses for thinking and crafting your response. That thoughtfulness may result in answers that go deeper than if you were conversationally speaking them aloud.

    Drawback: This approach can take longer, or may feel slightly intimidating to someone who does not consider him or herself a writer.

I don’t particularly recommend having a friend or loved one interview you for this exercise (though it is an approach I generally do suggest for family history preservation). Part of the value of this writing prompt is its privacy and striving for depth, and its aim to get you to share things you might not feel comfortable sharing under normal circumstances.


What Comes Next?

As with many generative writing exercises, I recommend setting aside your self-interview answers for a week or so before doing anything else with them. Once that emotional distance is achieved, then you might:

  • use your interview to write a longer vignette exploring one answer that was surprising to you (or revealing, or maddening, or…)

  • use the themes within to create a template for how to approach a larger life story project

  • discover questions that yielded only the beginning of an answer; if, upon rereading your answer, you feel the need to expound, then this may be a topic rife for your attention

  • determine which questions prompted you to share more than you expected, then (a) consider asking similar questions of a family member to capture their stories; or (b) think about going even further—what would chapter two of your answer be?