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 . . .