Memoir Writing Tips: Interviewing and The Art of Listening

by Kendra Bonnett on February 20, 2012

Book Business PaperclipPost #88 – Women’s Memoirs, Book Business – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Recently David Adelman of contacted us with the following email note: “I saw you listed on Dan Curtis’s top 10 blogs of 2011. Congratulations on this achievement! I’ve read through some of the blog posts and I can certainly see why you were selected. The posts are informative and entertaining.”

Okay, our faces were red. Such a nice compliment. I confess, however, neither Matilda or I were familiar with Reel Tributes. On our own, each of us checked out the site, and I suggest you do the same. Based out of Philadelphia, Reel Tributes produces beautiful, high-end documentary histories for families wanting to capture their stories for all time. They combine interviews, photographs, family movies, archival footage, music and more to turn lives into legacies.

David went on in his email to us, inviting Matilda and me to guest blog on Reel Tributes. Naturally, we have jumped at the opportunity and will be doing something for David and his readers some time in March. In the meantime, however, we found that Reel Tributes has an expert interviewer on staff, Lin Joyce. Perfect! Matilda and I have had it in mind for some time to do a series of posts on interviewing and how to get more information for one’s memoir by talking with family and friends. There are some techniques that help make this an effective technique.

So, we asked David if Lin might be available to write something for us. She graciously agreed, and below is a charming story that shows one very simple technique for getting an interview subject to open up. Lin originally titled this piece “Mining for Memories: Looking for Gold.” After reading it, I couldn’t help but add, “(and Listening),” and as you read Lin’s piece I think you’ll understand why.

Lin Joyce, Head Interviewer, Reel Tributes

Lin Joyce, Head Interviewer, Reel Tributes

Lin is a professional personal historian and an active member of The Association of Personal Historians (APH)–a marvelous organization. This past October, Matilda and I attended the APH annual conference and gave both a pre-conference workshop on Writing Alchemy and two workshops on publishing and marketing. I notice, too, that Lin’s bio on the Reel Tributes site mentions that she has two Asian Leopard cats. If that means she has a pair of Bengals, then she is well entertained at home. As I write this, my 20-year-old Bengal Sabrina is sitting close by my left hand…a cooler cat there never could be.

Matilda and I (and if we’re lucky, Lin) will be writing more about interviewing in the weeks and months ahead. In the meantime and without further ado, her’s Lin’s delightful post:


“Mining for Memories: Looking (and Listening) for Gold”
by Lin Joyce

I remember Mary, a very elderly woman I once interviewed. She wanted to preserve her life stories but was struggling with how and where to begin.

I asked Mary, “Do you have a family heirloom that is a precious piece of your family’s story?”

It didn’t take her but a moment or two before she said, “Yes, I do. It is one of the most cherished things that I own.”

“Would you share that with me?”

Within a few moments she returned to her chair gingerly carrying a hand carved wooden pipe rack, which housed three pipes. She held the pipe rack in her frail hands, as if the items were sacred.

My curiosity intensified, as she gently caressed the items. “Please tell me about what you are holding.”

“These were my father’s pipes,” Mary began.

As she spoke, her face took on a serene and tender expression. “He died nearly fifty years ago, but I still remember how in the evening hours, after supper was done, that my father would sit next to the fire in his rocking chair and smoke his pipe. Even after all these years, I can still remember the fruity aroma of that pipe tobacco as it smoldered in the bowl of the pipe. I remember sitting on the floor at his feet working on a wooden puzzle or looking at a picture book. My mother was there, too. Nothing could have improved this moment in time.”

Mary continued: “My father and mother were nurturing parents, and I always felt their love.” And then she got quiet, lost in her memories.

“Mary,” I asked, “How did your parents show their love for you?”

“They listened to me. They listened to me talk about my childhood dreams. They gave me their time and attention, and I knew that they cared about what mattered to me.

“One day when I was about six years old I was given a kitten. Not long after getting the kitten, it ran out of the front door of our home and was hit by a car and killed. I cried and cried over the loss of my kitten. My mother took me in her arms and rocked me softly. I still remember how quiet she was. She hardly said a thing, but I knew that she cared about how I was feeling.”

A pipe rack holding three pipes…and the memories arrived. As interviewer, I hardly had to say a thing to Mary because her memories flooded into her mind as she held, smelled, felt and saw the memories in her mind’s eye. Sometimes that is all it takes to find memories more priceless than gold.

Like her parents so many years earlier, I listened.

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Reel Tributes: Documentaries of a Lifetime » Mining for Memories: Looking and Listening for Gold (Guest Post)
February 29, 2012 at

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Matilda Butler February 20, 2012 at

Lin: This is a wonderful show-don’t-tell article on interviewing. I love your technique of helping a person to find her/his own story without using artificial prompts. It’s clear you are an expert in what you do and we thank you for sharing some of that with our readers.

Debbie Dean February 20, 2012 at

what a gentle way to stir memories! listening is such a gift to the recipient…..thank you for this story.

Kendra Bonnett February 20, 2012 at

If anyone is wondering what “show, don’t tell” looks like, you need not look farther than Lin’s post. This is a perfect example.

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