Saturday, December 3, 2011

Do you hear them?

“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories,” said author Eudora Welty, and that’s good advice, especially this time of year.

At The Writing Well, Anne Wainscott-Sargent* reiterates that advice, encouraging memoir writers to master the art of listening.

She quotes memoirist Brian McDonald:

“I was lucky I had a family of storytellerspolice officers and bartenders and such are natural storytellers. I was always a great listener. Those anecdotes I heard from when I was first a child stayed with me, and later on when I decided to do a book about my family, they came to life.

This holiday season, master the art of listening.

Encourage storytelling at your Christmas or Hanukkah gatherings, and listen.


Because God used your ancestors, current family, and friends to play key roles, genetic and otherwise, to make you who you are today

because their attitudes, influences, and DNA will pulse through your memoir whether you name those people or not,

because their words, jokes, and stories will echo through your memoir even if their identities hide in shadows in your final draft.

A PRNewswire article, Sharing Family History to Make Holidays More Meaningful,* recommends:

“Pre-plan to create a new storytelling tradition—Tell people in advance you would like them to share family stories during the holiday gathering. Set aside a particular time and place. Encourage them to bring photographs to help tell a story.”

That suggestion is followed by this good advice: “Set expectations—Reassure everyone they won’t miss out on watching the football game on TV or any other activities they enjoy.”

When you sit around the dinner table, listen to what people say.

Ask relatives and friends about those no longer alive.

Inspire them to re-tell stories you heard as a child but might have forgotten.

Raise questions: Where and when was Great-grandpa born? What did he do for a living?

Was Great-grandma a happy-go-lucky type, or a sourpuss? Why did she die so young? How did her death impact her young daughter (your grandmother)? How did Great-grandpa cope after her death?

What kinds of hardships did your ancestors suffer during The Great Depression? How did they celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah during those years?

Were they people of faith? Why or why not?

Listen for intangible legacies your ancestors left. Reflect on how that legacy impacts the youngest generation of your family.

This week Sheila Lagrand wrote about a conversation she had with her father. Because she asked, he answered and, as she listened, his answers surprised her:

“I turned and studied my father as if I’d never seen him before, puzzling to work this new information into my understanding of him… I wondered what else I had wrong.… Since that day … I’ve spent a lot of time sweeping the thick dust of assumptions from my memories of my dad. My understanding of him is a lot different.…” *   

So do what Sheila did: Ask questions and listen for answers.

Hold your stories and memories close, and make time to discover what God has been doing in, through, and for your family throughout the generations.

Listen to God’s still, small voice—within music, sermons, and conversations you overhear in long shopping lines.

Listen for stories while you wrap packages, shovel snow, or plan menus. Notice what comes to mind about holidays past.

A couple of days ago, Linda Joy Meyers* wrote:

“Think of yourself as a listener, a translator. Focus inward and hear the stories that whisper to you in a low key; tune into your desire to capture your grandmothers’ history, your mother’s face, or your father’s character.” *

This holiday season, ask yourself, “What stories would bless my kids, grandkids, family, and friends?”

Jot down a few notes.

Come back after the holidays, when your schedule calms down, and start your rough drafts.

Have you written a story about Christmas for your memoir?
If so, send me your vignette
between now and December 10
and I’ll select one to publish here
the week before Christmas.
See all the details in my November 12 post at this link:

*Resources and links:

Anne Wainscott-Sargent at The Writing Well,

Sharing Family History to Make Holidays More Meaningful ,

Sheila Lagrand’s The Day I Met My Dad,

Linda Joy Myers’ blog, Memories and Memoirs,


  1. Oh Linda, I love this idea of sharing our family stories while we can and to really listen to what is being said. My family has a tendency to repeat the same stories over and over again and to laugh just as hard each time they're repeated as if we've heard them for the first time! One of my favorite memories is of the day we all gathered around my parents' kitchen table to read the letters my paternal grandfather had written to my aunt when she and her husband were stationed in TX during WWII. He packaged them with construction paper covers and my other aunt added cartoons and illustrations of her own. He called them "Paul's Epistles" and they are a family treasure as well as a window into the WWII era in America. Capturing them in print is on my to-do list. Thanks for this great post!

  2. Kathy, your comment made me smile--I wanted to laugh with you as I read about your family laughing over old stories. "Paul's Epistles" are a real family legacy, full of gems.

    I've been asked to speak about writing memoir in a couple of weeks and I plan to suggest various ways of "packaging" memoirs, so I'll tell them about "Paul's Epistles" with constructin paper covers and your aunt's cartoons. That is so special.

    If you're doing research on World War II, a few minutes ago I ran across a wonderful resource, an online magazine about World War II, at this link:

    Melissa Marsh writes about WW II at this link:

    Happy writing, Kathy. Thanks for stopping by.


  3. Thanks for all the WWII links, Linda! I don't really have anything specific in mind to write. I am just enthralled with the "Greatest Generation",having been the beneficiary of my wonderful "Greatest Generation" parents. I'm so glad you can use "Paul's Epistle's" as an example for your class. Both my grandpa and the times came alive through his words.

  4. Linda,

    Thank you! I'm humbled that you found something useful to share in my post.

    Yesterday I attended the memorial service for my cousin, who died of cancer at age 49. If we have questions, we should ask them. Now.

  5. Thank you. I was home with my 89 & 90 y/o parents for their 65th wedding anniversary the week before Thanksgiving.

    I found myself listening and taking notes. My Dad disclosed another event in his WWII story in Germany while 'under live fire'.

    In the past I've tried to get him to remember events. Just listening seems a better method. It's sometimes important to see what in today, triggered the memory from the 40's. That is sometimes as important as the actual memory.

    I'm going to do more listening.

  6. Sheila, my heart goes out to you over the loss of your cousin, and at such a young age! May God increasingly comfort you and the family with His peace and hope.

    Thanks, too, Sheila, for letting me quote you. It worked perfectly with my message for the day, and you are so right: We need to ask our questions--have our conversations--NOW!

    Janet, I love your commitment to do more listening. How wonderful that your father will share some of his stories. I can't remember if I already mentioned this, but Karen Fisher-Alaniz published a memoir just last month entitled, "Breaking the Code: A Father's Secret, a Daughter's Journey, and the Question that Changed Everything." It's about her father's service in World War II, and she and her book are getting quite a lot of publicity. You might be interested in it.


  7. Linda
    You had mentioned it, but I'm not sure you said the name. I went over to Amazon and added it to my wishlist for Christmas.

    I read the introduction and it sounded all too familiar. The nightmares. Being there, but not really being there.

    My Dad started telling little stories after my 16 y/o son died. Not sure why that triggered the ability for him to begin to share. He has since shared many stories with me. I have about 40 letter or more to transcribe or scan. Not sure yet how to do it.

    I think I'll read Karen's books and see how she did it.

    Thanks so much.
    Love your blog.

  8. Great point about good writers being good listeners! I think I'm going to use this idea for our December 24th family celebration! Get everyone to tell a story.

  9. Oh, Olive Tree, your family will LOVE telling and listening to each other's stories at Christmas. I wish I could hear them, too. Bless your heart.