We’ve all had those moments, although we’re too polite to mention them. You’re listening to a colleague talking about his recent trip to Istanbul. It should be riveting. For years, you’ve wanted to go to Istanbul and here’s a chance for the inside scoop. But you’re having trouble paying attention. He keeps telling you the names of streets and the exact time of day when each event happened. Worse, he keeps correcting himself on those minor details. Plus, you’re never sure why the moment was important to him.
A few days later, a different colleague tells you about having breakfast with his son. It’s a simple story. His son didn’t feel like eating, but he joked him into cooperating. Your colleague describes the expression on his son’s face. He imitates his son’s voice. You enjoy the telling of the story and you even think about the story afterwards. Hey, maybe you’ll try using humour the next time your grandson doesn’t feel like eating.
So why was the second story better than the first? Why did you care about eating breakfast and not about a trip to Istanbul? When something exciting happens in our lives, we want to share it. To us, every detail is delicious. But to those listening, they’re looking for a good story.
Good stories only include the most vivid sensory details, like the scent of coffee in Istanbul or the sound of an oud. Unless details like the time of day are essential, a good story leaves them out. Most of all, the stories we love involve a challenge or a conflict, such as getting lost or having trouble communicating in a different language. We all enjoy hearing about how others have struggled and overcome a challenge. And just like the story about getting a boy to eat his breakfast, the challenge doesn’t have to be huge. It only has to be human.
There are many ways to gather family stories. For example, you could ask each branch of the family tree to provide stories about themselves. You could also ask children for stories about their parents, working your way through each generation.
But perhaps the most common approach is to focus all of the stories on the oldest surviving individual or couple. There are clear advantages to this approach. After all, eldest members have the most stories. Also, because their stories span multiple generations, they provide special wisdom.
Another advantage to focusing the stories on one or two people is that the book can become a once-in-a-lifetime gift that family members create in order to honor someone they love. Last year my mother turned 80. We wanted to do something special, so we created a book. I asked family members for stories, even managed to gather a few from Mom without her figuring out what I was doing.
Gathering stories from an extended family takes effort and persistence. We’re a relatively small family, but the book included contributions from 25 people and sometimes the stories took a little digging. Yet the reward was beyond measure. Mom can now see in print how much she means to us. Plus, we all learned something about each other and about ourselves.
An earlier blog that I wrote highlights how teens benefit from knowing their family stories. Well, I think those benefits apply not just to teens. We all feel stronger and happier when we know where we come from.
“When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” – Amadou Hampâté Bâ
Everything we care about, everything we want to remember, we shape into a story. Spiritual practices are shared through stories and so are current events. When we want to be entertained or inspired, we seek out stories in movies and books.
The moments of our everyday lives are saved in stories too. The day we were born, our first job, falling in love–we tell these stories over and over again. The ones that move us most involve hardship or challenge, such as surviving cancer or building a successful business.
Most of the time we’d rather not broadcast these personal stories. Parts of our personality, the matters we hold most dear, are kept safe within these stories. We share these stories only with the people we love because in sharing them we share ourselves.
The stories grow more valuable the older we become. Perhaps that’s because the older stories show how much our lives have changed. If these stories aren’t written down, they can be lost when the people telling them are no longer around.
What if you put these moments into a book? They would be there not only for present generations, but for generations to come. At Story Preserve, that’s what we do. We help families capture their most memorable stories in print so they can be shared amongst the ones they love.
My favourite uncle broke into opera singing at random moments. No, he wasn’t an opera singer. He was an electrician, but I hold him vividly in my mind by thinking about his exuberant singing. I will tell my grandchildren about his singing. When I do, they too will feel like they know him even though he passed away a few years ago.
You may be tracing your family tree. Many people enjoy genealogy and identifying their ancestors. Where people were born, what they did for a living, and other biographical facts are interesting. But to capture personality, you need stories.
Each family has its own way of deciding which stories are important. Some like to remember how they came to Canada with nothing and built a new life. Others find value in remembering moments when they nearly lost everything. Your family might celebrate the ridiculous. They might enjoy listing the silly things they have done. Lots of us do because it’s fun to laugh. Your family might be drawn to romantic moments, acts of heroism, surprising situations, and all of the above.
The task is not easy. If you’ve decided to gather the stories of your family, where should you begin? You can’t record it all. If you wrote down everything, the details would fill libraries. Here are a few suggestions on how you might begin:
- Look for the moments that reveal personality most vividly.
- Encourage input from everyone in the family.
- Interview elder members of the family to gather stories about ancestors.
- Look for humorous moments as well as heroic.
- Choose a deadline for completing the project, such as a family reunion or milestone birthday. (Otherwise, the project may never be completed.)
- Set a maximum length for each story; 500 words is likely enough.
- Enjoy the treasure hunt. You’ll be delighted by what you find.
Story Preserve offers a range of professional services to help families save their stories and photos in a book. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to know more.
The best family talks happen at the dinner table. You chat about your day at work or school. You recount moments you’ve enjoyed together, like a family canoe trip or playing laser tag all afternoon.
As parents, you love to tell your children about your life. You talk about their grandparents and other relatives too. Some of the stories are about pleasant experiences, but the stories your children like best often have an element of challenge.
Teens like to hear about how their parents and other relatives made mistakes, faced difficult situations, and managed to pull through. It helps them figure out who they are and it makes them more resilient.
A group of psychologists at Emory University studied the impact family stories have on teens. They found that teens who know their family stories have higher self-esteem and feel in control of their lives. If they know how their parents met, where their grandparents were born, and other details about their family’s past, teens are less likely to experience depression.
Fivush, R., Duke, M, & Bohanek, J. (2010). Do you know … the power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being. Atlanta, Georgia: Emory University.