On my Process, Price page I outline my approach to the work of preserving a life story.
Here’s a closer look.
Setting the stage
Preserving a life story calls on steps and skills you use crafting nonfiction and fiction. Like a journalist, you gather information through research and interviews, fashion the story and express it clearly. Like a fiction writer or columnist you’re concerned with voice, character and conveying opinion.
Before I interview the person the story is about — the subject—I’ll want to gather some basic information beyond name and age on topics such as family, education, career and achievements.
I might look at communities the subject called home, groups the subject joined and places the subject worked. The idea is to shine light on more than just one or two sides of a subject’s life.
If the subject agrees and the scope of the story permits, I’ll look for letters and seek short, focused interviews with people who knew the subject and wish to add a perspective. The idea, here, is to use other voices to reveal character.
I like to talk with the subject about the interview process. It’s best if the subject is at ease with being recorded. I’ll explain that recording helps me capture voice as well as words. We can decide the order of the themes to be explored at this time.
To an interview I like to bring questions that start with the words why or how. These questions prompt a subject to explain and, in the process, offer details. Details make stories more vivid, more real, and may offer words and images that suggest new questions.
Before I stop recording, I like to ask if there’s anything I’ve overlooked. This question can uncover important new information.
When I transcribe, I type out all the words I’ve recorded—mine as well as the subject’s. I’ve found it helps to know exactly what I’ve asked. I should add that I used to transcribe with pen and paper. Now, to save time, I type out the transcripts.
Fashion the story
When I’ve finished interviewing and transcribing, I’ll look over the transcripts and the information I’ve gathered and think about how to organize this material. I’ll look for the heart of the story, a principle or sequence of events to build the story around.
Yes, the subject and I may be inclined to tell the story in the order of the interview questions. But there are alternatives.
A life can be viewed as a series of blocks of time: years spent in one place and then another. It can also be explored through themes, such as childhood, school days, career, marriage and children. Or it can be written around an experience or challenge—a family move, a new career, a life-affirming event.
I’ll talk with the subject about story order and chapter headings. We’ll want to proceed with a clear, shared understanding of the shape of the final product.
Express the story clearly
Once the parts of the text are in the right order, it’s time to edit. This work includes creating chapters, deciding on paragraphs, punctuating the flow of words and deleting bits of conversation that don’t add to the story.
That’s right. I’m suggesting that to make the story clearer and easier to read I’ll likely have to make certain small changes to what the subject has said.
My experience suggests that most people will expect, understand and appreciate this. But to help smooth the process I might take some time to explain what it means to edit. I might also show the meaning by editing a few transcribed pages and sending the subject the unedited and edited versions of the pages.
Editing turns transcripts into a document the subject reviews. Review and the next step, revision, aren’t complete until the document has been carefully copyedited or proofread.
Present the story
There’s quite a bit to production. Steps include design, layout, scanning any photos and obtaining permission to reproduce them, and printing and binding. How much work there is depends on the scope of the project and how elaborate you wish the final product to be. If you aren’t sure about what’s involved in production, consider getting help with it.
I hope you find these points helpful. But I realize that you may have questions, particularly if, just now, you’re considering your first project preserving a life story. Should you have questions, I hope you’ll take a moment and send them along.