Story Catching

Two years ago, they were strangers. Then a chance encounter led to a deep friendship and a 100-page biography. Now, Bob Sather may know Al Vaicius' story better than even the Plymouth resident does...
So begins a wonderful tale written in the Minneapolis Star Tribune by Jenna Ross. The article does a fine job of telling the drift of the story, but after I read it, I was suffused with curiosity. I recognized that Bob Sather was applying the fine art of lifestory writing in the role of “story catcher” to immortalize the life of another person, and I wanted to know more.

The fact that I found this article illustrates one wonder of the Cyber Age. The fact that I was able to track Bob down via an email to Jenna Ross was another. During a recent phone conversation I asked Bob how he handled the interviews with Al. His account was close to what I'd read in the article, and included these points:

  • They met over coffee once a week or so, a good way to keep the atmosphere relaxed and the story flowing, without distractions.
  • He let Al set the agenda and keep the story thread moving.
  • Bob just listened and made a few notes.
  • He did not record the interview sessions, because he felt that would be intrusive.
  • After their meetings, Bob went straight home and wrote down what he recalled. His wife then transcribed that to the computer.
  • He reported things a close as he could remember to the way Al told them.
As you'll learn if you click over to read the article, Bob had a surprise as the story wound to a close. Al disclosed a secret that he'd never told anyone. This sort of revelation is a fairly common conclusion to examining your life, whether you write about it yourself or tell it to someone else, and I've only heard people express relief and a sense of closure from divulging their secret. It often results from healing anger, resentment or other negative emotions that have built up over a lifetime. Even stories that begin for other purposes can have that effect.

Bob’s experience is strong evidence that following your instinct, whether you’re writing your own story or someone else’s, will generally put you on the right path. In one sense though, Bob got lucky. Al sounds like an easy person to work with, in the sense that he was a good story-teller and his story poured forth easily. Bob didn’t have trouble following the story, remembering it, or keeping Al focused.

It’s not always that easy. Some people jump around, leave out important facts, and with some you have to dig for information, because they don’t consider it worth telling, for one reason or another. Should you be inclined to initiate an attempt to record someone’s life, presumably a relative, it will help to be armed with questions to keep things focused and make sure you get the whole story. You may also need to ask more follow-up questions to clarify points or flesh out terse accounts. If they are willing and comfortable with the idea, a recorder is also a terrific resource.

The craft of turning your notes into a finished story is much the same as writing your own story. The two main differences are that you'll write in the third person, and you won't be able to rely on your own memory for as many details. If the person you are writing about is available, as Al is, you can consult them as you fill in the details. If you are writing about someone long-gone, you'll have to do the best you can, making it clear where fact departs from assumption. The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing guidelines cover the rest of the bases.

I greatly admire Bob’s story catching project. Even though it wasn't planned for publication, it's a great tribute to a life that demonstrates perseverance survival against the odds. I eagerly wait to hear that it’s finished and suspect that many people beyond Al's family will want to read it. That may be a few months down the road though. The project has not yet been completed. Final edits await, as does the choice of printing method. Should it become available via Lulu or a similar service, I'll let you know.

Write now: a story that a friend tells you. Let the friend read it for accuracy, then share the results.

Write on,

Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal


Anonymous said...

In November my wife volunteered to train for and work the election polls as a Judge. She is a board member of her labor union and the president asked her to write a report on the experience. She asked me to do it for her. I interviewed her over coffee. She gave me answers with the flare of story telling. I think the atmosphere was condusive. I wrote her report in story form. At the Christmas dinner held to appreciate board members and spouses, the president informed me the story I wrote was being printed in the next edition of the union paper...and so it was.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Herm, with your flair for story telling, that story could result in the recruitment of many more poll workers, and if your area is anything like ours, they are sorely needed. Bravo! Thanks for sharing this story.

Tara said...


Good story and article!

Linda Austin said...

I published a book of my mother's life growing up in Japan around WWII. She is a good storyteller and made my work easy (easier). It does help to have a list of basic questions, but after typing up the stories there are so many more questions you want to ask. I made a pest of myself asking them. And of course, those questions can lead to more stories and more questions! It's great having all those details, though, to make that person's life really come alive.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Linda, thanks for your input. I clicked over to your blog and the link to the book about your mother. It sounds fascinating! I look forward to reading it.