Telling Personal and Family Stories

Grandson James telling me a story

An old toy at a flea market makes us remember when we played with one just like it, fifty years ago. Tasting a certain food or passing a place from our childhood can recall good times--and bad--long past. These are stories that need to be told, that are as important in our lives as the stories we find in fairytale and folktale collections. They keep us in touch with our roots and allow our descendants to understand a little of how we—and they—came to be who we are today.

How can you find the story in a memory? Here are a few simple tips to get you started:

How Do I Get an Idea for a Personal Story?
Have a list of questions that ask about specific life events. For example:
Do you remember your first day of school?
What were you wearing?
Did you walk or ride the bus?
Did you know other kids or was it a strange and scary place for you?
Who was your teacher?
What was he/she like?
Were you afraid of them?
Was your teacher old or young?
What did you have for lunch?
How did you feel by the end of the school day?

How old were you when you learned to ride a bike?
Was it your bike or someone else’s?
What color was it?
Did it have training wheels?
Were you scared or excited?
Who taught you to ride?
How did your first bike wreck happen?
Did you get hurt?

These are just two examples of probing for memories that might become stories. Developing memories into stories takes time. Here are some suggestions to develop your basic story line:

Take the time to remember. We are all busy, and reminiscing takes time. It also requires talking to others who might have been there or might remember the incident you are trying to recall.

Make time to talk, call or email and ask them to share their memories with you. Have some specific questions to jog their memory and guide the conversation so that you get what you are seeking for your story.

Write it down. You might recall that the bike was a red Schwinn, for example, then two days later remember that it belonged to your cousin Harold who knocked out your two front teeth. Write it all down; when you begin to develop your story, some things will stay in while others don't make the cut. Save all of it, because there may be more than one story lurking in there.

Knowing What Stories to Tell
All memories might not be great stories to share or to develop for the stage. Ask yourself these questions:

What is important about the story? Why will other people want to hear it? Find the universal. Most people had a wonderful grandparent--what made yours unique? Add some vinegar to the sugar! No one is perfect and that is what defines character. Seek out the basic humanity that audiences can identify with. Did the sweet grandma who always held you on her lap ever drop her teeth in the commode?

So How Does a Memory Become a Story?It probably won’t come to you as a full-fledged story at first. It will be bits and pieces that start fitting together when you have collected enough of them. Keep a notebook of ideas, thoughts, words, memories, and items from the time period of your story.

Give it time. Let it simmer in your brain, and add to it as you remember more details.

Write a timeline of events.

Seek the bones. The bones are the basic outline of the story, the important things that you hang the rest of the story on. Tell the bones to anyone who will listen.

Tell it over and over. Repeated tellings will hone your story as you discover what it is in your tale that appeals to listeners.

Resources for Personal and Family Storytelling

Telling You Own Stories by Donald Davis (August House, 1993, ISBN 0-87483-235-7)

Creating a Family Storytelling Tradition: Awakening the Hidden Storyteller by Robin Moore (ISBN 0874835658).,1120,4-10295,00.html
An article by storyteller Odds Bodkin on an ingenious way to start a family storytelling session. paper based on an interview with a woman born in 1913, and her memories of WWII. Includes some thought-provoking information about subjectivity in personal stories.