How to write a loved one’s life story; the ultimate gift

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How to write a loved one’s life story; the ultimate gift

Having a recording as back up means you don’t need to break your subject’s commentary if your handwriting isn’t fast enough to keep up with what is said.

With holidays fast approaching, now is the perfect time to start planning a generous and meaningful gift – interviewing a loved one about their life and writing up their life story. It’s a great way to celebrate a friend or relative’s life, reminding them of all they have achieved and leaving a legacy to be enjoyed by future generations.

Below are 10 tips to inspire your interviewing and writing, so even if writing isn’t normally your thing, you’ll be able to give it a go.

 1. Nut out some questions

Some people are happy to talk about themselves for hours and won’t need much prompting. Others might not know where to start and feel embarrassed talking about themselves. Either way, it’s best to arrive with some questions to either get the conversation started or to help keep it on track.

Consider asking others who know and love your subject to suggest key events, milestones or relationships you could cover.

Organising questions in chronological order, maybe even alongside a rough timeline, can help make sure you don’t miss important life events.

To capture the significance of those events and achieve a more intimate and engaging story, consider asking about emotional and physical feelings. Questions about the senses might trigger more in-depth memories and make the story richer.

If your subject touches on sensitive issues, clarify that they are definitely happy to have them written up for others to read.

2. Plan a couple of interview sessions

Keep in mind your subject’s health and stamina when you’re planning interviews. Short interviews might be more productive and enjoyable for someone who is fatigued or unwell. Time your chats for when they have the most energy and are thinking most clearly.

Try to avoid the pressure of having to cover off everything in one long sitting. Having a break between interviews will enable you to review the information you have collected, so you can identify gaps and any points that need clarifying. It will also give your subject valuable time to think. Leave them with a pen and paper so that if memories resurface once you’re gone, they can jot them down to discuss later.

Planning a few sessions also means you can clarify details later. You won’t need to interrupt a natural flow of memories in order to confirm the nitty-gritty, like dates, places or the spelling of names.

3. Give your loved one space to talk

When you have a list of questions or limited time it can be tempting to fill silences with questions. Actively monitor your subject’s body language and be mindful not to interrupt their thinking. Give them the time they need to collect memories and thoughts and avoid distracting them. Leave space for the memories to flow.

4. Find a reliable way to capture what is said

Recording what is said on your smartphone seems like a simple option until it comes to transcribing, which can be very time consuming. One option is to pay a professional transcription service to do this for you. Another is to take notes and just use the recording as a back-up. If your subject says something interesting or expresses it beautifully, make a quick note of what time during the interview it occurred so it’s fast and easy to find it later.

Having a recording as back up means you don’t need to break your subject’s commentary if your handwriting isn’t fast enough to keep up with what is said.

If you are relying on a recording, make sure you a quick test to ensure you and your subject can both be heard clearly. Be careful that they don’t move out of audible range during the interview.

If you’re quick and snappy on the keyboard, consider typing as your subject talks. It is far more time-effective than having to transcribe a recording.

5. Capture your loved one’s voice

One benefit of having a detailed recording or transcript to work from is being able to capture the way your subject expresses themselves, which will in turn reveal something of their personality. If your loved one has a turn of phrase they’re renowned for, don’t miss an opportunity to include it.

If your subject is very articulate and a great story teller, you might be able to pull their whole story together just by editing transcripts of your interviews. 

Consider mixing your writing styles up a little, to include an explanation of what occurred followed by direct quotes that capture your subject’s voice and personality.

1965: The home decorating disaster. Francis decided to wallpaper the living room to surprise Mary when she returned from her Melbourne hospital visit.
“I didn’t finish the job ‘til late at night and I’d driven all day so I was dog tired. When Mary got home the next morning she was so thrilled, but then -- poor darlin’ -- she noticed the strip of upside down roses. She thought it was hilarious, bless her. I could have bloody cried. We never did get around to fixing it. But Mary did crack a bottle of bubbles when I finally painted over it last year. It was only then she told me it had always driven her nuts.”

6. Consider writing up short snippets and using links

Writing and reading large slabs of text can be daunting, so consider structuring your story as a series of short stories under headlines. You might like to present them in the order that they occurred, or if it is more interesting, based on their significance.

If you find interesting background information on line, consider creating an electronic version of the story with links. That way you can provide context without adding swathes of additional text.

Health during the war
John was recovering from dengue fever in a jungle forest in Borneo when he found out the war had ended. He remembers recovering from a series of ulcers, which healed faster after a doctor opened them up with a pocket knife. He credits a good dose of penicillin as probably having saved him and he remembers the relief of being given a sleeping pill. It still makes him smile to remember that night without pain.

After the war
After Borneo, John headed to Japan with the British Commonwealth Occupational Force where he met his wife-to-be, Ari.

7. Maybe start with a family tree

If there are lots of family members who are important to your subject’s story, consider starting your written tribute with a simple family tree. A visual representation might make it easier to explain who is who, and how they fit in, than providing a written explanation.

Being equipped with a family tree before you start interviewing might also help you to better understand who your subject is referring to when telling family stories.

8. Write it for what it’s worth

There are no rules about how long a life story should be. Having a summary of just a few pages may be all you need to capture important life events and memories. Be mindful of how important it is to finish your project. Only start writing a long and involved story if you’re confident you will have the time and motivation required to finish it.

9. Think pics

There’s nothing like a photograph to bring a story to life. Scan photographs or take images of them with your phone and include them where they are relevant in the story. Ask friends and relatives to go through albums and find photos that are significant.

10. Make sure your final product is easy to read

Fancy scrolling fonts with shadows might look old fashioned and pretty, but they are much harder to read than Arial or Times. Contrast is also important when it comes to legibility, so as tempting as it might be to use coloured text, it won’t be as easy to read as black on white.

Smaller fonts can look more sophisticated than larger fonts, but again they are more difficult to read. Increase the chances of people who are elderly being able to enjoy your work by presenting it in 12 point or larger.