Each time I hear of someone giving his or her parent or grandparent one of those memory books titled something like My Father or My Grandmother, with blanks to fill in by writing responses to questions about the past, I cringe.
What a sad, simplistic way to remember a life. Telling one's story is best done in an interactive, flowing, improvisational process: Listening, asking, telling, silence. What a constricting, excluding notion of audience, too. The person doing the remembering is so much more than a parent or grandparent, and learning about his or her journey through life can benefit so many, both those alive and those yet to be born. What a strange notion about the result of remembering one's life. A filled-up, fill-in-the-blank book? The telling has so many more benefits than creating a tangible artifact.
The benefits of telling about one's life are as much for the teller as for any audience. Over the past few decades, I often have seen firsthand those benefits accruing to the storyteller.
Since 1996, I have been very lucky to teach courses in life story writing (which, of course, included the speaking and the telling of the stories, too). In working with people, I have seen over and over and over that the process of recalling life is rich and moving. Never did I teach a class in which there were not at least a few tears and many smiles.
Those grandparent-memory books remove the richness of the interaction and the depth of the slow telling and retelling. Filling in the blanks creates a static skeleton—at best—but life stories and memoirs are hearts, guts, breathing, soul, pauses, repeats, and telling a memory more than once, each time with a change.
What are the benefits of telling one's story? I count among my friends and colleagues several people who are professional life story teachers and storytellers, and I put that question to them this week. Below are their answers, mixed in with mine. I have only edited a bit for clarity and have used the masculine pronoun throughout. My friends explain in their own voices the benefits of a senior member of a family telling his story . . .
Caregivers may get to know him far better.
It will take his mind off what any challenges of aging he is facing -- and family members' minds, too
The ability of seeing patterns and having new realizations about purpose, how he makes decisions, how he thinks. To be able to view his life in a larger context.
There are so many benefits, and first and foremost, being heard is one of the most important ways our brains stay integrated and our hearts feel filled with goodness. What is spoken in relationship is much more powerful than what is written alone in that regard - not that writing alone doesn't have benefits. If the senior family member can be held with love and patience, in spite of any difficulty with some words, that can be a powerful disconfirming experience of the prevailing cultural belief that words and cognition are the main ways we connect and the main ways in which we are valuable.
Then there is the overall experience of brain integration between right and left that emerges with storytelling, and while some of that comes through in writing, it has always been my belief that much more is possible through the deepening of co-storytelling and narrative well heard. In the moments of silence, often we go deeper if we are just being held with care.
It also might be quite wonderful for the kids and grandkids to hear grandpa or grandma struggling for words but being loved and assisted at the same time. Give them permission to stumble around throughout their lives instead of having to be so verbally perfect.
Achieving closure and perhaps forgiveness … renewed sense of pride in his accomplishments
I think reading memoirs serves as a catalyst for reflection for those reading, too. How does this resonate for me? How does it challenge me? What insights can be gained about shared human experiences? Memoirs also help evoke or recreate a reader's own experiences of a particular time, place, context and provide a grounding for our own sense of history.
Stephanie (that's me) writes: That notion of history is an important one. I have the diary1 of my great-great-grandmother Flora Bender written in 1863 as she traveled as a teenager from Nebraska to Virginia City, Nevada. Reading it is better than reading a history book. I doubt that she had any idea she would be teaching generations after her about life back in the mid-1800s. (More about her diary in Children's Voices from the Trail.) Recalling that we are one link in a continuous strand from ancestry to life to legacy that connects us throughout years and centuries can be another benefit of telling one's own history.From "Linking the Past to the Present - The Benefits of Reminiscing" (Today's Caregiver):
Reminiscence is a free-flowing process of thinking or talking about one’s experiences in order to reflect on and recapture significant events of a lifetime. We all live in the present, yet we still carry our “past” selves with us throughout our lives. We are part of a rich history that needs to be shared and preserved. The stories we tell about our lives are also important sources of self-identity and enable us to explore and relate our past to the present.
More about reminiscence (Wikipedia).
And now back to colleague comments . . .
It may also help him crystallize his alternatives in later life and come to peace with whatever decisions he makes. The primary reason to tell his story should be for him, not his kids or grandkids.Having experienced seniors telling their story a number of times in my own family & with other relatives I can tell you a few things I learned:
The number one reason that folks overlook: getting down your own story just for yourself. To say what was what with your life. Others may be interested in hearing about this or that but as Donald Davis reminded me so long ago, personal stories define identity, help the teller (and then the listener) stay in touch with who that person is.
There is the preservation aspect. We may recall a story or three being told over the years but to have it recorded preserves the stories for years to come.
There is a richness in the family story that you just won't find out in the wide wide world of books - it's special.
Another [benefit] would be the value for him of having one or more of [his family] sitting there listening attentively while he reminisces. The value of being "heard" or "witnessed" to borrow a phrase from Christina Baldwin and John Kotre (I think he used it first, and she may have picked it up from him, consciously or otherwise when she wrote Storycatcher).
A couple of people had some words to say about the methods of collecting the story.
In my family what worked was a tape recorder on the table & then the teller & listener could talk eye to eye. Eventually we lost track of the recorder being there. In my personal opinion I believe the sound of the human voice is critical. Why do so many folks hold onto message machine and cell phone answering messages? To hear the voice of the one who left. How many stories like that did we hear after 911?
Stories are about memorable people, places or events. Choose one & ask a question such as what pet did you have when you were young? This question mines the brain for memories so much better than,"Tell me a story about when you were young."
As for writing vs. taping, what is easiest for the person? Does he speak better than he writes? Has he written throughout his life? Does he take joy and comfort in writing, or does he like to talk things through? Even if he stumbles at times, if he’s more comfortable speaking than writing, then that’s the way I’d go.
Stephanie writes: Perhaps a highly extroverted senior may prefer talking to the more individual and lone activity of writing?
It occurs to me that both mediums [taping and writing] might be in order. Have him write first and then record and interview him. Then he might want to write some more after the interview. They will both help him not only have recollections, but give detail to the stories and then observe what the themes and patterns are showing him.
Thanks to all my colleagues, a super group of seven, who contributed these valuable thoughts: Stephanie Kane, Diane Wyzga, Sharon Lippincott, Francine Campone, Hartley Goldstone, Cathy Sunshine, and Bonnie Badenoch.
Now, idealawg readers, what are your thoughts?
1Bender, Flora Isabella. "Memoranda of a Journey Across the Plains, from Bell Creek, Washinton Co., Neb. to Virginia City, Nev., Terr. May 7 to August 4, 1863." Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 1 (July 1958): 145 - 173.
Note (added September 5, 2012): Related: "Why Write? Holding Onto Memories" (Writing through Life).