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Preserving Family Memories – How To Conduct A “Life Story Interview”

Life Interview

My Mom and Dad are now in their mid 80’s and with each day that goes by I feel more keenly the need to capture their history and insights about life for myself, my children, and beyond. I am no family history expert, but I do know that I could sit for hours and listen to my parents tell stories about the “good ol’ days.” Lately I’ve been thinking it’s time to actually do something about preserving these memories and life lessons. I’ve been doing some research into it and realized that in this digital day and age it’s never been easier to accomplish this.

In the past, if you wanted to conduct a personal history interview, and record it for posterity, it involved a lot of klunky and complicated equipment. Today all you need is a smartphone and access to some storage (in the cloud or on a hard drive.) You might also need a little guidance, but a quick internet search will provide you with endless inspiration for how to do a “life interview” of a loved one.

Just think how happy it would make your mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, etc. to have someone really listen to them while they take a trip down memory lane. The best gift you can give someone, especially the elderly, is to listen to them. When you take the time to listen, you are telling that person that what they’ve done, and the things they care about are important.

Anyone can create a life story for themselves or a loved one. It’s as simple as setting aside some time and really listening.

Life Interview

Here are a few tips for a successful life story interview and a list of questions to get you started:

–Prepare your questions in advance.

–Set aside a quiet time and place free from interruptions and test your equipment before starting.

–Ask open-ended questions like: Tell me about… Describe… What was it like when… In what ways…. Why…. and How…

–Start with easy, friendly questions and work your way up to more difficult or sensitive questions.

Life Interview

–Listen carefully to what the person says; don’t interrupt or correct. Maintain eye contact and show interest by leaning forward and nodding.

–Photos, mementos, or other visual aids are great memory-joggers, have some ready if necessary.

–Don’t try to force any subject they are uncomfortable discussing. If the person doesn’t want to talk about something, just go to the next question.

–As you listen to answers, other questions will come to mind. Asking follow-up questions will help you get more information.

Life Interview

–An interview shouldn’t last more than about an hour. People do best when they’re not tired. You can always do another interview.

–Organize life stories into chapters. Most people love to share stories from their lives but the challenge is to capture the stories in a structured, logical way. GreatLifeStories.com organizes life stories into 12 chapters that are logical and chronological and are a great way to structure your interview.

Life Interview

Here are some suggested questions following the “12 Chapters” format:

CHAPTER 1: In the Beginning

  • What were your parents and grandparents full names, dates of birth, places of birth.
  • What were the occupations of your parents?
  • How many children were in your family? Where were you in the lineup?
  • Generally speaking, what was your childhood like?
  • What one or two stories do you remember most clearly about your childhood?
  • Are there any particularly happy, funny, sad or instructive lessons you learned while growing up?
Life Interview
My Mom

CHAPTER 2: In Your Neighborhood

  • What was it like where you grew up?
  • Describe your most important friendships
  • Where and how did “news of your neighborhood” usually flow?

CHAPTER 3: School Days

  • What are your earliest school day memories?
  • Are there any teachers or subjects you particularly liked or disliked?
  • What did you learn in those first years of school that you would like to pass along to the next generation?
  • Were you involved in sports, music, drama, or other extra-curricular activities?
Life Interview
My Dad

CHAPTER 4: Off to Work

  • What did you want to be when you grew up?
  • What was your first job, and how did you get it?
  • What was your first boss like? What did you learn from him or her?
  • Did you leave? Quit? Get promoted? Get fired?
  • Were you ever out of work for a long time? If so, how did you handle it?

CHAPTER 5: Romance & Marriage

  • What do you recall about your first date?
  • How did you know you were really in love?
  • Tell me how you “popped the question,” or how it was popped to you.
  • Tell me about your wedding ceremony. What year? Where? How many attended?
  • Honeymoon?
  • Tell me about starting your family.
Life Interview
My Mom and Dad

CHAPTER 6: Leisure and Travel

  • What were the most memorable family vacations or trips you can recall?
  • What leisure time activities were you involved with?
  • What are your greatest accomplishments in this field?

CHAPTER 7: Religion

  • What was your family’s religious affiliation?
  • Where did you go to church?
  • What religious ceremonies did you take part in?
  • What role do your beliefs play in your life today?
  • What would you tell your children about your faith?
Life Interview
My Dad

CHAPTER 8: War & Peace

  • Were you a volunteer, drafted?
  • If you didn’t serve, what do you recall about being on the home front during the war?
  • What key moments do you recall about your service?
  • What would you tell today’s young soldiers, sailors and fliers?

CHAPTER 9: Triumph and Tragedy

  • What were the most joyous, fulfilling times of your life?
  • Any sad, tragic or difficult times you’d care to share such as losing a loved one, a job, or something you cared about?
  • What lifelong lessons did you learn from these tough times? Joyous times?
  • Were there any moments you recall as true breakthroughs in any area of your life?
  • If you could do one thing differently in your life, what would that be?
Life Interview
My Dad

CHAPTER 10: Words of Wisdom

  • What have you learned over your lifetime that you’d like to share with the younger generation?
  • Do you have a philosophy of life? What’s your best piece of advice for living?
  • If they respond with platitudes like “honesty is the best policy,” be sure to ask how they learned that life lesson.

CHAPTER 11: Fun and Games

  • What were your family’s favorite jokes or pranks?
  • Who is, or was, the family comedian?
  • What’s the funniest family story you remember?
Life Interview
My Mom

CHAPTER 12: Gratitude

  • What are you most grateful for in your life?
  • How have you taught your children to be grateful?
  • Are there items or places that mark special gratitude for you? What are they? What are their stories?

When concluding your interview ask, “Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you would like to talk about?” You might be surprised at the answers! :-)

Knowing  your family’s story and where you came from is a treasure. If you make a point of recording and/or writing down your family story it is something that will be cherished for generations.

Jill Nystul Photo

Jill Nystul (aka Jillee)

Jill Nystul is an accomplished writer and author who founded the blog One Good Thing by Jillee in 2011. With over 30 years of experience in homemaking, she has become a trusted resource for contemporary homemakers by offering practical solutions to everyday household challenges.
I share creative homemaking and lifestyle solutions that make your life easier and more enjoyable!

About Jillee

Jill Nystul

Jill’s 30 years of homemaking experience, make her the trusted source for practical household solutions.

About Jillee

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Bright Ideas

  • This is an excellent how to. For those of you who keep putting it off….DON’T! In November 2013 I was looking for some pictures and found an album that belonged to my grandmother that I had never seen. It was from the late 1800s and early 1900s. My Dad knew who every person was and we said we were going to sit down and document it. We put it off and he became ill unexpectedly and passed away 3 months later. So I have this beautiful album full of WONDERFUL pictures and no idea who they are. (My dad was an only child.) Morale of the story is never put off until tomorrow what you can do today. And with that I’m organizing everything for my kids and grandkids. :)

  • Awesome idea. Great gift for parents. Need to figure out how to insert info regarding her 2nd husband,my stepfather though. Life with my father wasnt always the best and they divorced when I was young. Any ideas?

  • Thanks Jillee. We did a recording of my mom and promptly lost it. How I wish I had it back and one of my father too. He died way too early and it would have been nice to hear his stories of his childhood.

    In 2007 I joined Ancestry and spent two years finding a wealth of information. My mother had some records she had passed on to me and I had forgotten about them until I found them in a manila envelope one day. I was thrilled and they helped a lot.

    For Christmas of 2009 my husband and I gave each of our ten children a very thick book I did on the computer, complete with pictures and a little story about different homes, people, jobs, etc. The children were thrilled and asked all kinds of questions. I have since found more information. That’s the wonderful thing about Ancestry and Familysearch.org (free). They get new information all the time.

    I love doing this and at least the children will have some facts and know about a lot of their ancestors.

  • The biggest regret I have is that we didn’t record moments when my parents and grandparents talked about their lives, my dad died suddenly nearly 4 years ago and my mum suffered a massive stroke just over a year later and although she is still alive, her memories are all jumbled. My dad accomplished so much but we only realised how little we knew when we were arranging his celebration of life and it will be the same with mum.
    Although I have some wonderful memories their life stories would have been a special bonus to my children and I. So please do this as soon as you can, don’t let life get in the way.

  • Thank you so much for putting this information out there. We did our first interview with my mom when it was clear that her cancer was terminal. My little boys put on their best clothes, rehearsed their lines, and took it very seriously as I recorded with our clunky video camera. Our multiple interviews followed your basic time and”chapter” suggestions, but we asked many detailed questions which often led to stories and additional questions- what did you wear, what was for breakfast, what games did you play…
    We went on to do interviews with my dad and other relatives in that generation. We used my dad’s interviews in his memorial service a few years later. Such a blessing to hear his strong voice and hear him laugh again.
    Please, please do this with your family! As soon as you can, however you can. Just do it.

  • Jillee, thank you for putting this together in such an easy-to-follow fashion. I’ve been wanting to do this and kept putting it off because I’d get overwhelmed. You have motivated me to start very soon. Thanks for that, too.

  • My mom was more of a writer so I put slips of paper with questions such as yours into a jar and gave her a journal to go along with the “journal jar” gift. Her instructions were to pull a slip of paper every few days and write her answer to the question. The resulting journal wasn’t necessarily in a neat chronological order, but it is precious all the same since it is in her own neat, old-fashioned handwriting. My thought is that technology may someday fail, but a written journal will always be there for me to enjoy.

  • I agree whole-heartedly with Noreen, don’t wait. I try to keep this quote by John Lennon in my mind, “Life is What Happens To You While You’re Busy Making Other Plans.” We never can tell what experience life will bring or if we will be able or willing to talk about things as we age. Also, over the years our vibrant/passionate memories can fade or get jumbled. We can do 10 minute interviews anytime. I have an uncle who would randomly do one any time family was together (very informal, one on one) afterwards, he type them up and place them in a book. Digital options make this way easier.

  • My thought is: Don’t Wait! Do it now while you still can. Your loved one could be felled by a stroke tomorrow or be unable to communicate their stories and you would lose a wealth of memories.

  • I love this!!!! When we were back home visiting this summer I had my children come up with questions to ask their great grandparents. Then we asked them while I recorded the answers it was one of the most memorable parts of our month long trip! I can’t wait to ask these questions to my Grandma! Thank you!

  • I am working on my own story for my Grand child. I have pictures of my parents, Grand parents, as well as great grand parents that I plan to put in book. How and where can I get this done?

  • Thanks so much, Jillee. I hope you do this and get a great memento. I expect they’ll mention how proud they are of you and your sister. Great to see photos of your parents- who do people say you most resemble. Your dad??

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