If you’re tired of badgering them to write their own story, you’ll just have to write your parents’ story for them. Chances are, your parent/s will appreciate you doing the hard work. More than that, they’re sure to enjoy the experience. You can bring in friends and family to help, and the finished book will make a wonderful gift.
Why you might want to write your parents’ story for them
As a professional biographer and life story writer, I’ve met so many people who rue the fact their parents never got around to writing their life story. There are just so many parts of their parents’ lives they’ve never known.
Having something of Mum and Dad’s life down in print is a wonderful, comforting resource – something to dip into whenever you want to feel that connection with them.
The big question: Why don’t more people write their life story?
Mostly, it’s humility. The ‘I don’t have a life story worth telling’ narrative. But this issue of ‘worth’ is problematic.
I say, you can judge the worth of your story by the number of people who want to read it.
So, if you want to read your parents’ story, tell them. If friends and family want to read that story too, let your parents know.
You may find that your parents love the idea of telling their story, but never thought anybody would be interested in hearing it. Or it may be that they always wanted to tell their story, but never had the time to tell it, (or never felt capable of doing the work). Either way, they’ll probably be grateful to you for suggesting you’ll write their story for them.
How do you write your parents’ life story?
So, if you want to write your parent’s story, how do you go about it?
Before you can do anything else, you’ll need to ensure that your Mum or Dad (or both) are happy to answer questions.
When you’re formulating questions to ask your parent/s, you’ll need to know if there are any off-limits areas, or if anything and everything is open to scrutiny! Talk to them about the kind of story you – and they – want to tell.
Here are some initial questions to ask your parents to help you define the scope of the book you’re going to write:
- Do you want to tell the story of your whole life?
- Do you want to focus on a few elements of your story? These could include parenting, life and love, lessons you’ve learned, funny stories for the family etc.
- The most important question of all: Are you happy to let me (and the rest of the family) write your story for you?!
If you want to write your parents’ story, you’re going to have to be an objective interviewer
One of the most important parts of this process is going to be gathering all the information you need to write your parents’ book. You’re going to have to be their objective interviewer, and push them for as much insight as they can give you.
It’s all too easy to fall back into the usual parent–son/daughter dynamic and let them re-tell those stories you’ve heard before. Don’t get me wrong, there’s joy in all the cherished old stories that get trotted out again and again.
It’s good to put a new slant on old material, and give fresh context for family members who may not understand all their references. Imagine that family members who haven’t even been born yet will be reading this book in a few decades time. Some of what your parent/s talk about will seem like ancient history to them. The book you write will be a bit of a time capsule. It needs to work as a standalone book for children and grandchildren who won’t have many points of reference for the lives your parent/s led.
Try and get your parents to open up a bit more about the major events of their lives. Dig a bit deeper into their feelings and emotions, so you can give the story some emotional heft. You want to try and help readers feel some of what it felt to experience those big moments.
Try and ask them some challenging questions…
Thinking up questions to ask your parents to tell their story
When I’m interviewing someone to write their book for them, I try to keep interviews as conversational as possible. I don’t want it to feel too much like an interrogation.
When you’re thinking up questions to ask your parents, take a softly-softly approach that will lead them effortlessly into the process of talking about their life with you. Start with the easy things that’ll get ’em talking. Consider topics they’re already comfortable talking about, including their family, where they lived, their life at school etc.
I suggest you break your questions down into broad categories, and stick within those categories so it doesn’t feel as if they’re jumping around through their own personal timeline! Your categories could be related to life stages, thematic categories, or a mix of both:
- Adolescence and growing up
- Leaving the nest – further education / work
- Relationships and children
- Values and outlook
- The future
The questions behind the questions to ask your parents!
Most importantly of all, be prepared to ask as many follow-up questions as you can. Sometimes, interviewees need a little bit of gentle prodding before they really get to the heart of the story.
One thing I’ve noticed as a life story writer is that most people seem happier talking about facts than feelings. But you really need a bit of both to tell their story effectively.
Here are some examples of questions to ask your parent to wheedle out more information. In this scenario, a parent has told you they felt sad when their friend moved away…
- When they say they were sad, what do they mean? Were they sad for a few days and then moved on, or were they genuinely inconsolable for weeks?
- Did they ever see that person again?
- What did they miss most about that person?
- How did the end of the friendship change them in the long run?
- Did they make new friends?
You get the idea.
Most of us need a little prompting to really open up. But hopefully because you’re interviewing your own parents, you’ll have a head start in that regard!
The practicalities of interviewing
Before we get to the 24 questions to ask your parents to help you tell their story, let’s just consider some of the practicalities.
Most people will prefer to be interviewed in their own home. It’s quiet, discrete and comfortable.
It’s essential to record your conversations, in full. Then you can listen back to your recordings and transcribe them. This also reassures your parent or parents that you’ve got the most accurate understanding of what they’ve told you.
Because you’re recording, you won’t have to worry about taking notes. It’s a lot easier to have a free-flowing conversation when you’re not trying to write everything down. However, it is a good idea to make notes for yourself. When I work with clients, I make quick notes of points I want to come back to, and follow-up questions I want to ask. This leads us nicely to our next point…
It can be hard to get people talking. So if they’re in full-flow and they drop an absolutely incredible bombshell, don’t stop them. Make a note of the point you want to follow up on, let them continue until they’ve run out of steam, then ask the question you’re dying to ask.
Working on their biography with your parents’ family and friends
I mentioned earlier that one of the advantages of telling your parents’ life story for them is that you can include lots of other contributors.
Including contributions from friends and family is a good thing for two reasons:
- It shows your parent how loved, admired, and appreciated they are. Given that you’re writing a book for them, that has to be a good thing. Without wanting to sound too morbid, these are the kinds of things I keep hearing at funerals. Wouldn’t it be nicer for all concerned if we could share some of these things while our nearest and dearest are still alive to hear them?
- Other people’s perspectives on events that are familiar to your parents will give a nice slant on their life story. Opening these stories out to a wider range of contributors is a really good way of keeping the book interesting. Even old familiar stories will have a fresh feel.
24 important questions to ask your parents
Armed with all of that, let’s get to the 24 questions I think you should ask your parents if you’re going to tell their life story.
These questions really are the tip of the iceberg, but they will help you to uncover more of your parents’ stories and dig a little deeper into their lives.
Feel free to adapt these questions as springboards for questions of your own:
Questions to ask your parents about their childhood
- Paint me a picture of your childhood home – what are the sights, smells, and sensations you remember most vividly?
- What were the things that made you happiest as a child?
- What were Christmasses and birthdays like for you growing up?
- What did you most love, respect, or even fear about your parents?
Questions to ask your parents about adolescence and growing up
- How did you rebel as a child or teenager?
- What are the things that make you cringe when you look back at the younger you?
- Who were your most significant friends and why?
- What did the 16-year old you want to do with their life?
Questions to ask your parents about leaving the nest
- Did you choose the right career path?
- Tell me about the first home you bought or rented?
- You’re 25 years old – were you a ‘work to live,’ or a ‘live to work’ person?
- Did you have to abandon some of your dreams as you grew up, or did you follow them?
Questions to ask your parents about relationships and children
- What did falling in love feel like, and what did your first boyfriend / girlfriend see in you?
- How did you know (your significant other) was right for you?
- What kind of parent have you been – can you see your own parents in you?
- What’s has been your biggest challenge as a parent?
Questions to ask your parents about their values and outlook
- Was there a time when things clicked into place, and you thought: I love my life? Or, I feel like I know what my life is all about now?
- Even if we don’t mean to, we sometimes make enemies in life? Who were yours?
- What are the values that have remained important to you, and why?
- In what ways – good and bad – has the world changed?
Questions to ask your parents about their legacy and future
- How do you think the people who know you best would describe you?
- In what ways have you changed? In what ways have you stayed the same?
- What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
- What advice would you give children / grandparents / the youngest members of our family about making their way in the world?
Any questions for me?
I hope that helps you find some new angles on old familiar subjects in your quest to find out more about who your parents are, and how they’ve lived their lives.
If nothing else, those questions should get some interesting conversations going.
And if you’d like to talk to me – and ask me some questions about helping you tell your parents’ story – you can book a free 25-minute life story writing consultation.