It’s the time of year when every publication worth its salt offers a summer reading list to occupy these lazy, hazy, crazy days.
It’s also a time to think about the written word from the other side of the page. A time when leisure hours could be devoted to working on writing the life story of a cherished older person.
It could be the most meaningful gift you ever give them — and yourself.
Today there are websites, workbooks and apps to assist with collecting anecdotes and events recalled by your aging parents, grandparents or that beloved uncle or godmother.
But professionals who turn such narratives into published memoirs suggest the easiest and most efficient way that DIYers can create a biography is by recording a series of conversations.
“Most families I’ve worked with say, ‘I got her this book so she could fill it in but she never did,’ ” said Linda Coffin, who has been helping people write their life stories for 15 years through her Twin Cities-based HistoryCrafters business.
Recorder in hand, Coffin has shown up at homes, assisted living facilities, even hospice units to take down the stories of older people. She transcribes the interviews, then edits them into keepsake books funded by children or grandchildren. She’s ghostwritten 40 such memoirs.
“The internet has revolutionized publishing. You used to have to print a minimum of a thousand volumes or no publisher would handle it,” she said. “Now you can get a professional-looking book in a short run. Most of my clients want 15 to 25 books; the most I ever did was 200.”
Coffin finds that amateur genealogists in the hunt for dates and documents often miss out on the treasure and texture of tales told in late life. What’s important, she emphasized, is carving out regular time to sit with your subject and listen.
“A good way to start is with photo albums of their early years. Ask about the pictures and then let them talk; don’t try to steer them in a particular direction, and all of a sudden they’re telling unexpected stories no one never heard,” she said. “With my own mother, I was in my 50s before I discovered she almost married someone else.”
Journalist Steve LeBeau started Autobiography Inc. a decade ago. He uses his newsgathering skills to assist families who commission him to write the story of a matriarch or patriarch, often as they approach a big birthday.
“When I interview them, they’ll often say, I don’t know if I should tell this story or not. I tell them, get it out and we’ll decide later,” he said. “The person who tells me the story gets the final say; they’re the executive publisher and author, not me and not the person who is paying me.”
In addition to finding photographs to illustrate a book, LeBeau searches out materials from the family archive — clippings, journals, letters, memorabilia. For a university professor’s memoirs, he combed over his body of research articles.
LeBeau maintains that anyone could adopt his practice of using hours of transcribed interviews to tell the life story in the first-person voice of the subject.
“Many people find writing difficult, but everyone can talk. Record them on audio and you have the voice of the loved one,” he said. “You’re serving the purpose of passing along family stories. Your real audience is the great-grandkids who aren’t born yet.”
A forum to tell their truth
Research dating back more than 50 years confirms that older people reminisce because they need to. A widely held theory finds that making what gerontologists call “a life review” is a universal experience of our later years, when early memories grow more vivid and people feel a powerful need to reevaluate their legacy.
That makes it an ideal time to ask probing questions, according to Tom Meuser, director of the University of New England’s Center for Excellence in Aging and Health.
“Give them a forum to tell their truth, to give testimony to what they hold dear and what they want to leave behind,” he said. “Ask about their regrets and their thoughts about death. Those I’ve interviewed have said, we never talk this way.”
While novelist Gustave Flaubert declared that “every person’s life is worth a novel,” our contemporary lives frequently follow a familiar pattern. Meuser notes that most Americans experience common milestones — we’re born and raised, go to school, find partners, work, build families, retire.
When recording an individual’s history, he warns against getting too tied to the facts of the timeline.
“In every life there are particular turning points, good and bad, that set us on a path and define us; that’s what makes every story unique,” he said. “Those are the markers we want to hear about, the decisions, perceptions and values that make each one of us who we are.”
Helping a loved one process their lives through their stories is a gift of love and reconciliation, according to award-winning author and creative writing professor Carolyn Holbrook.
“There are things in all of us that are troublesome that we need to unload. This will be healing,” she said. “Everyone’s got something to say and once they start delving in, they see it.”
Currently teaching a course called “Finding Your Story, Telling Your Truth” at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Holbrook urges her students to call up the details of memorable incidents, a memoirist’s technique to trigger memories.
“I want them to look at an event and go deep. What were you wearing, what time of year was it? And engaging the senses gets to the core of the story,” she said. “One student was talking about something that happened on the farm where she was raised and when I asked, ‘What did the farm smell like?’, it opened her up.”
At 74, Holbrook is writing her own autobiography. To help her turn back her personal clock, she’s immersed herself in the music of her youth.
“I was a juvenile delinquent who fell in love with a bad boy,” she said. “I’ve been listening to doo-wop to get back to that time and my frame of mind.”
More than family history
While a book that recounts Dad’s wartime heroics or Grandma’s hardships during the Depression may seem of interest only to a small family readership, there’s often broader significance in such life stories.
The Minnesota Historical Society has several hundred of these self-published biographies in its collection and is always on the lookout for more.
“Personal stories that give us a feel for what life was like are invaluable,” said Lori Williamson, outreach coordinator for the Historical Society. “They give us a richer context for understanding the times and are a valuable resource for academic historians.”
While the transcribed interviews, notes and documentation of a life story collected today are likely to be in a digital file, Williamson emphasizes the importance of having a hard copy of the final product.
“Paper is our friend. Keep it away from fire and relatively dry and you can have it forever,” she said. “It’s difficult to be sure about how we will migrate things forward in the future, especially when thinking about something that would be saved for a hundred years.”
Setting the record straight
Three years ago, Greg Campbell almost wrote the last chapter of his life story. He experienced what he called “a near-death experience” when he fell into an uncovered manhole, shattering his spine.
“It scared the hell out of me,” admitted Campbell, now 73, of Fridley. “Before that I assumed I was immortal.”
The freak accident prompted Campbell’s son to hire a personal biographer to document the details of his dad’s life, from meeting his wife at a drive-in in Anoka to his service in Vietnam to building the family business.
“My son had always heard me tell my funny stories about growing up, but when he saw how frail I was, he wanted a record,” said Campbell.
Campbell worked with Mary O’Brien Tyrrell, who had a 25-year career as a personal historian before retiring this spring. Campbell’s story was the last of the 300 personal memoirs she has ghostwritten.
“Having a book about your life is transformational. When they hold it in their hand, they feel like a million bucks. They’re so happy to know the stories will be remembered correctly when they pass on,” O’Brien Tyrrell said.
Tyrrell, 76, began her work at the dawn of the personal-computer era, when word processing made the documentation easier.
“A family member can do this. It helps if they’re a little older; you need the wisdom to know when to probe and when to stand back,” she said. “And what an honor when you say to your loved one, ‘I want to tell your story.’ ”
O’Brien Tyrrell offers recommendations to newbie writers: Make an appointment and put the subject in their favorite chair; unplug everything and let them talk in two-hour stretches, then repeat.
“They know when they’re done. They’ll say, ‘I think that’s enough,’ ” Tyrrell said.
But her most important bit of advice: Don’t procrastinate.
“This can make them feel so peaceful at the end of their lives. One of my first subjects died the day after I showed her the final draft,” she said.
“Get a notebook and a recorder and get started. They take their stories with them.”