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The Right Questions

By Tom Gilbert - Copyright © April, 2012

“Each human being is unique and original, and nobody has lived what we have lived. We have to trust that our stories deserve to be told. We may discover that the better we tell our stories the better we will want to live them.”
Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey,
HarperSanFrancisco, copyright ©1997.

To know your self is a powerful thing. Plato attributed to Socrates the importance of this ancient wisdom – “Know Thyself”.

When you make the decision to tell your life story you start on a process that will be very revealing. You will meet someone very special. That someone is you!

Personal history is indeed a process. As the information is uncovered that makes up your story you will be constantly reflecting on it. Who am I? Where am I from? What matters most? These are just a few of the probing and introspective questions every life story, memoir or personal journey must ask. The answers behind these questions are wonderful gems to be mined and to reveal to you (and others) the story of you.

Most teachers will tell you that preparation is essential for good lessons. The same is true for your memoir or life story project. Before you sit down to an interview you need to mentally prepare. It is not essential that you know all the questions in advance, but I think it is a good idea to know some of them. And it helps to also have an idea of what parts of your life each interview will cover. A good personal historian will know this and provide in advance this information.

Let’s take a moment to consider the right questions. Say you are going to talk about your experience traveling to a remote land. The overarching “who, what, when, where, how and why” are great guides. Who was on the trip? What was it like? When and where (precisely) did you go? How did you get there? And why did you go? Can you see how these words are guides to core information?

Beyond the W,W,W,W,H & W are the questions that have you pondering the experience on a deeper level. A good interviewer will know how to ask without pushing and, more importantly, how to wait for your answer. Thought-provoking questions require time to answer. It’s best when the question is asked not to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. Pause and consider. If the questions are ones you have thought about beforehand then chances are you will provide some of that “story gold” we all are hoping for.

What are some good questions for life review? There are many. Here are a few of my favorites.

What places have been most important to you and why?

What lessons has your work life taught you?

Can you describe your religious or spiritual beliefs?

What do you want most for those you love?

Did you experience any dramatic changes in health or circumstances?

Have you been present to someone’s birth (such as your children)?
Have you been present to someone’s death (a parent or family member)?
What did those experiences mean to you?

What annoys you or bothers you?

What is your favorite way to relax?

Consider the most important lessons you’ve learned in life. What would you share about that to the next generation?

As you can see, these are deep and introspective questions. Sure, I like also knowing about people’s hobbies, favorite colors, clothes, what makes them laugh, ways they like to travel and what their favorite books and movies are. But the right questions are really important. Don’t overlook them. And think about them in advance of your life story interview.

I’ve come across many helpful questions over the years, often from other personal historians. I am always working on my list. If you have some to share, or you’d like to get more simply contact me by email.

Read other articles on life-story writing here.


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