What does one get for the father that has everything? I’m serious, he really has everything. Looking for a 57/83 inch drill bit? Yep, he’s got it. How about a nice copy of the June, 1985 edition of National Geographic. Yeppers! A left-handed socket wrench only for fixing blenders. Oh, yes…that too.
So, getting something at Christmas or birthdays for a man in his 80s that is a card-carrying member of the ‘Hoarders Gold Club’ has been a challenge. I want to honor my father, but not empower the man to add to his stash. My mother has threatened arson more than once.
It occurred to me that people in my father’s age bracket are focused on legacy building; financial legacy, Church service legacy, and of course, personal history legacy. And it was in this last category that I chose to focus my efforts. I’m so glad that I did because what came out of the experience of recording, transcribing and writing what would someday be a nice softcover family ‘must read’ (along with the blues associated with some things not going so smoothly) have been priceless for me as well as my family.
Along the way, I’ve learned a few lessons that I would like to share about writing a person’s biography. It does not matter if the person you are writing about is a relative or just an acquaintance, the methods are still the same:
1. Before you do anything, find your objective center. To retell the life, the whole life, of an individual accurately and fairly, you must approach the project as if it were a paid job assignment. Kicking back and sharing a few laughs and memories is nice, but it lacks strategy and organization. If you are interviewing and writing about a close family member and you think you might become overly emotional (sadness, gratitude, anger, joy, etc.) then make a list of those topics that need to be dealt with separate from the biography process.
2. Create your universe. In other words, take the time to outline the direction that the interview will take. Try to strike a balance of chronological continuity without getting bogged down in the details too soon. You can always add sub-topical areas as desired after the initial interview.
3. When you and the subject are ready, arrange a meeting time. Set a limit of an hour for the first meeting, followed by more at later times. This will allow you to demonstrate to your subject that you are interviewing them with a clear plan and that it won’t be an endless meeting. Most adults, even relatives, have a limited attention span.
4. During the interview, tell the person what topic you are about to question them about. Then, ask open-ended questions. Make sure the recording device you are using is unobtrusive; it can stress the subject when they see it in front of them. Do NOT take notes; the subject will feel obliged to let you catch up on your scribblings, which will often break their train of thought.
5. After transcribing the recordings, edit the first script for writing conventions and send a copy to the subject. It may seem odd to edit so soon, but you don’t want the subject to fret about these annoyances.
6. Do a quick genealogy of family and friends. Get the contact information of these individuals. Create a document in which your subject gives authorization for any relative or friend to share personal information with you, the interviewer. Sometimes, relatives and friends are reluctant to be candid unless they have the subject’s blessing to do so.
7. Once a complete interview has been conducted and transcribed, read over the script several times. Glaring questions or topic areas that need deeper exploration should be identified. Send these questions to the subject prior to the ‘details interview’, along with a current copy of the script. This will give the subject time to do a nice memory jog on what they've already said and hopefully spark deeper memories that could prove invaluable to the overall biography. Then, make another interview appointment, but do not set a time limit. At this meeting, it’s time to ask the hard questions and press the subject a bit. It’s at this point that my questions would be more like: ‘How did that make you feel?’ or ‘What do you wish you had done differently in that awkward situation?’ Remember, if you still have unanswered questions when reading the biography, then so will everyone else that reads it. You want to close as many open-ends as possible.
8. Edit several times and get a ‘buddy reader’ to give it a once over.
9. Believe it or not, now comes the hardest part of the whole biography process: Obtaining photographs. Sometimes, getting people to find pics of their early life can be a difficult challenge. You might want to prompt what kind of pictures you are wanting so the person doesn't get bogged down going through endless boxes or albums and trying to decide which pictures they think you might want. Of course, their opinion plays an important part.
10. Assemble and self-publish. There are numerous self-publishing websites to choose from: Lulu is very popular, as is Create Space and Completely Novel.
This 10-step process may seem tedious, but it works. If you write a biography using these steps (or your own amalgamation) you’ll actually find yourself having fun and getting the creative release we authors are all hooked on.
Back to my father’s biography. I've really enjoyed the process, bumps in the road notwithstanding. My father rolled out a story one day that nobody in the family had ever heard. Apparently, he and a teenage buddy hopped a train from Arizona to Los Angeles so that they could ‘go to the beach’. They nearly died of dehydration as they crossed the brutal desert and didn't count on the truancy officer (For the more youthful MMW among us, a truancy officer was a type of law enforcement officer that patrolled the neighborhoods during the school day looking for kids who were ditching school.) arresting them. So apparently, the beloved patriarch of our family was a youthful jailbird.
The hardest part of this process was the accumulation of photographs. There have been numerous hurdles: The house fire of 1948 destroyed a lot of them; the box that has some pics is out in the hot shed; or worse, ‘I don’t know where some of the photographs are’. It’s made me get creative and ‘think outside the box’ in order to get what I believe will help make a great biography to honor a great man.