Nobody Remembers Your Story the Way You Do

PhoneCallMy daughter recently sent me a copy of an article she’d written with the following note in her email: “… I’m kind of stealing your stories here and wonder if it’s okay and if you want o me to change anything …”

I was pleased that she had the professionalism and courtesy to alert me and ask permission first.

I read the article with interest. It was strong and well-written, but I saw with dismay that although she had the general sense of my experiences right, most all the specifics were inaccurate. I called her and set the record straight, giving the story my blessing.

This experience underscores three fundamental facts about the importance of writing your own life story.

If you want your story written right, write it yourself.

My father is a great story teller. I’ve spent untold hours listening to him tell about his father’s job killing prairie dogs for the USDA (I think it was the USDA – I’m not entirely sure, which emphasizes my point here), teaching cadets to fly bombers during WW II(I always forget the full list of models) and endless others. The fact is, I don’t even remember all the subjects, much less the details. Fortunately he has written many of his stories – but nowhere near all of them. There are still huge gaps. Most of his stories will die with him, along with fragments of family history that he’s the last to remember at all.

I’m doing my part to perpetuate them. I’ve been turning on my tiny digital recorder while he talks – when I have it handy and remember. That’s better than nothing, but he lives 2500 miles away, so our time together is limited and editing or transcribing recordings is hard, time-consuming work.

Sharing stories with others is a great way to set the record straight.

If my daughter had not written her story and shown it to me, she would never have known the actual facts, and I would not have realized this. There was no harm in the way she told the story, but setting the record straight gave her a little more insight into the relationship I had with my mother and a couple of other things.

Had she not written this story, these facts would never have all been on the table at the same time, and neither of us would have connected the dots.

Collaboration fills in blanks in family history.

The fun part is that had my daughter not written this story, I’m pretty sure I never would have – at least not that way. Her approach of  writing and checking facts worked well, even though that wasn’t her specific intention. She was simply being respectful. If you have family members available to collaborate with on writing family history, seize the moment.

Write now: write a story based on your memory of a relative’s experiences that hold meaning for you. Show the story to your relative and ask for their version. You may want to change your story to incorporate their edits. Another possibility is to incorporate their version as additional observations, for example, “In Aunt Gussie’s version of this story, Uncle Herman … )

Photo credit: Ken Banks


Linda Austin said...

Ugh, you're so right, Sharon. If you write what you remember hearing about, it's like playing that childrens telephone game. I like to transcribe from video or audio recording because mistakes can be made even in trying to listen and take notes while somebody's talking.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks for adding this additional few cents worth, scribe Linda. Your work writing stories for others is a valuable service indeed.

Amber Lea Starfire said...

Sharon, another fun and informative post. Memory being what it is, I often wonder how many of our own details are correct, let alone what we remember of others'.

Sharon Lippincott said...

I chuckled out loud at your observation regarding the accuracy of our own details. I'm sure I've written about that. You are right! In light of your wisdom, what I did was align our two memories, which may or may not exactly align with documentable historical fact.

Unknown said...

Great idea to compare stories! In fact, the he said/she said could be a fun way to approach a couple's personal history. Unless ...

Sharon Lippincott said...

Laura, a long-time friend of my mother-in-law co-wrote a memoir with his wife about their experience in China teaching English just as the Revolution began. They had also been spying, and were imprisoned for "reeducation." They took turns narrating the book. It's an awe-inspiring, thought-provoking book. Sadly, the book is out of print. I don't own a copy and can't remember the name. I mention it because it so perfectly demonstrates what you are saying, and it also shows that memoir has been around a long time.