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How to Capture Your Family's Stories for Posterity
by Chris King

Every family has years and years of stories — happy, sad, exciting, humorous, adventurous, historic, good, bad, and ugly. These stories are often shared when the family has holiday or annual get-togethers, but without being recorded on tape and/or paper, they are soon forgotten and never enjoyed by the following generations. Don’t let that happen to your precious tales.

Write your family stories down as you remember them. And, don’t be dismayed if others have a different perception of what actually happened or the worth of this work. One Christmas, I decided to treat my five children to a booklet filled with family stories. I made sure that I had at least one memorable story with each child as the main character. When they opened their copies, I was surprised at the reactions. My oldest daughter thanked me again and again for taking the time to put this “treasure” together. My second daughter read a bit, turned to me and said, “You have it all wrong. Nothing happened the way you have written it.” My son, the middle child, read the whole booklet, laughing hysterically throughout. And my two younger daughters said, “How interesting.” But I am not sure that they ever read their gifts. The important point to remember is that writing down your family stories in your own manner is a great way to start and will also prove to be a wonderful experience for you.

Start with the elders in the family. Before your parents, grandparents, and/or aunts and uncles are no longer here, sit down with them and ask lots of leading questions. If you say, “Tell me your story,” they will answer, “Nothing exciting ever happened to me. There’s nothing to tell.” On the other hand, if you ask thoughtful, open-ended questions about places they’ve lived, people they’ve known, teachers they’ve had, places they’ve traveled to, their remembrances of first dates, embarrassing moments, and happenings and important events that made a difference in their lives, they will fill up tapes and books with interesting stories. You will have much more than you need for meaningful stories, but you can always edit later.

Where can I find good questions to ask? Donald Davis, master storyteller of personal stories, has written an excellent book filled with thought and story provoking questions called Telling Your Own Stories: for Family and Classroom Storytelling, Public Speaking, and Personal Journaling. Another great resource for questions and getting family members to recall and tell you some of the most surprising and revealing stories is the game, LifeStories. For ages 6 to 106, LifeStories is different and interesting every time. The more people and the more generations who participate, the better it gets. Players take turns moving and drawing. Cards ask you to share Memories (Describe something you and your father did together. Tell about an aroma you recall from childhood), Valuables (With what famous person do you wish you could spend some time? Why? What is your favorite time of year? Why?), Etchings (Tell about an incident with a key. Name a fad from the decade when you were born). If you don't care to share what's on your card, draw from the Alternatives pile. Just make sure you or someone else present records the answers.

Once you have the information, it’s time to create the story for posterity. This is the most fun, but also the most demanding part of the storytelling and story capturing process. You will have many extra details and facts that will detract, rather than enhance, the final story. Keeping in mind the attributes of a successful story — time, place, character(s), conflict, crisis, change, and resolution — you will pull everything together for a story that will interest, entertain, and last. It is OK to embellish and add the emotions you felt when listening to the story for the first time. Once you have it in a tellable and/or readable form, start sharing it with others in the family at get-togethers and reunions. You will soon discover the parts that work and don’t work. Make note of reactions and points of laughter and tears. Ask for feedback (don’t listen to negative remarks).

Create a written version. I know that this whole process sounds time consuming and like a lot of work. It is both, but once you have these “treasures” written in final form, you and the whole family will be delighted. You can’t give a better gift to family members — beginning with the whole process of gathering and listening to the final product of sharing.

Remember, everyone in the family who takes part will be excited and proud, and, hopefully, will continue the process of capturing family stories for posterity.


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