Formats for Writing Life Narratives

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Questions and Answers: Best choice when subject is very verbal or there are two or more people being interviewed or taped at the same time. All repetitive statements, umms, ahhs and blatant incorrect grammar are edited out. Natural patterns of speech, coloquolisms and favorite sayings are left in.

JHW. When you started your business in 1934, how did you finance it?

BT. Well, remember my uncle Horace? He was my Mother’s brother.

HT. Half brother.

BT.. OK, so half brother, her father remarried after Sybil, my grandmother, died and my mother was a little girl
about nine or ten. His second wife, what was her name?

HT.Alice May Jones, her family had moved west to build the dam.

BT.. So anyway, Horace was killed in a train wreck when he was visiting in California and as he had never married, the insurance settlement went to his next of kin, which turned out to be my mother. She wanted to invest the money and came to us and asked our advice. I told her that I had been thinking of opening this repair shop and I thought I could make a go of it. She thought about it long and hard and came back the next day and said she would rather invest in us than any old bank.

HT. But we paid her back with interest. We were able to put the business in the black in only three years.

BT. Of course, we worked our butts off, didn’t we?

First person: Best choice when the tapes will need significant editing to make a flowing
narrative. It is written as if the speaker were doing the writing. The interviewer simply ghost writes the life story.

I loved being a mother. It seemed as if that was the role God had created just for me. Other women would complain about their children being messy or noisy, and I honestly didn’t even care. I just loved to be there when they came home from school. About two o’clock I would start to get antsy, just couldn’t wait for them to come in the door, throw down their jackets and books and sit at the kitchen table and talk. I even loved cleaning up after them when they were sick. I know that is hard to believe for some people, but I used to say to myself “well, I would rather have it out here smelling bad than inside of them making them feel bad.”

Third Person: Best choice if the subject is having difficulty remembering or if the interviewer has to gain the majority of the facts from records, other family members or others who can add insight and information. Jennie was a fun loving little girl and definitely the apple of Tom B. Bradshaw, her loving father’s eye as well as the object of his generosity. But one time, when she was about six years old that generous and loving spirit was put to a test. Active in the first Methodist church, their entire family enjoyed the Sunday school picnics held every summer in the park east of town. On this particular day, the family had no sooner arrived and began eating when a group of little girls came to the table demanding to see the elephant Mr. Bradshaw brought.

Methods of telling the story:

It is best to think of a life as a long strand of pearls with each year or significant event as one pearl.

• An autobiography tells the jest of the whole necklace, usually in a chronological order. Chapters, special events, decades, houses or any other natural division can separate the sections.

• A memoir takes an important section of the pearls and makes a short necklace. You can refer to the other beads, but you don’t go into detail describing them but concentrate on the significant period of time you are describing.

• An anthology is a collection of short unrelated stories, essays, anecdotes, incidences etc. that are gathered together in one book The stories may build upon one another or they may be able to stand on their own.

• A photoscribe is a more in depth scrapbook. The stories revolve around a photo or two.

Each page has a beginning, middle and end.

Including photos, graphics and memorabilia

These additions to the narrative greatly enhance the readability and value of the project. However, they also greatly enhance the time needed to do layout, scanning, sizing etc. that will be reflected in the cost of the finished project. One method of saving money is to group all photos in the center of the book.

Judy H. Wright is a parent educator, family coach, and personal historian who has written more than 20 books, hundreds of articles and speaks internationally on family issues, including end of life. You are invited to visit our blog at for answers and suggestions which will enhance your relationships. You will also find a full listing of free tele-classes and radio shows held each Thursday just for you at

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