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Interview: Looking For Someone to Record the Life Story of a Loved One? Here’s What You Need to Know


Mary O'Brien Tyrrell

Every life matters immensely. Every well-lived and completed life helps in healing the world. – Zalman Schachter

Today, a growing number of families enlist memoirists and personal historians to help loved ones record their life stories. This is often done as a gift for a birthday or special anniversary. The business of memoir writing is still in its infancy, so what qualities should individuals look for in a memoirist? And what can they expect to pay?

In a recent issue of the Journal of Aging, Humanities, and the Arts (April-June, 2008), pioneering memoirist Mary O’Brien Tyrrell shared her reflections on memoir writing and its growing popularity with the public.

AHB reached O’Brien Tyrrell in St. Paul, Minnesota. We asked, among other things, for tips on choosing the right memoirist.

Ruth Dempsey: What started you thinking about memoirs?

Mary O’Brien Tyrrell: Back in 1993, I was the gerontological coordinator of a research project for the National Institute of Cancer. The aim of the project was to encourage elderly minority women to have regular screenings for breast and cervical cancer. I was introduced to many American Indian women and invited to help serve their elders at a monthly feast. Later, I went to powwows and honouring ceremonies, where I was struck by how the community venerated its elders. Elders shared time-honoured rituals, sacred dances and stories with the young. And when an elder spoke, everyone listened.

How does mainstream society honour old people, I asked myself. I realized that mainstream society doesn’t honour elders. However, it occurred to me that when a biography of a famous person is published, we tend to purchase the book and then emulate the life. The seed was planted.

My first "narrator" was a 52-year-old friend and hospice patient dying of breast cancer. She had a history of two failed marriages and had raised a daughter by herself. After the
third interview, she remarked, "Now that you’re asking me all these questions, I realize I have had a very wonderful life!" Today, her daughter reads her mother’s memoir on her own birthday, her mother’s birthday and Mother’s Day because "It feels like my mother is talking to me."

My second client spent most of his 91 years on the farm. At his book-signing party – held out in front of his barn with 75 family members present – he claimed, "This is the best day of my life!" After that, I was hooked. I’ve been writing memoirs ever since.

RD: Memoirs come in different formats. How are they priced?

MOT: The cost of a memoir varies from a few thousand, to tens of thousands of dollars for a multimedia plus website venue. The Association of Personal Historians has over 600 members today, and each entrepreneur sets their own price structure.

Formats vary too. Some personal historians compose the story in writing; others record it in audio or video. Some even work in the fabric arts, piecing together quilts to tell a life story.

RD: You established your own business Memoirs, Inc. over a decade ago. Can you describe how you work with clients?

MOT: I became a full-time memoirist in 1994. Since then, I have helped over 250 persons in United States and Canada to publish their life stories.

In working with clients, I follow a five-step process:

1. Interview: First, I interview clients in the privacy of their home for a total of 10 hours, usually in five two-hour recorded sessions. I assure clients that anything they tell me is confidential and that nothing will be included in the volume without their approval.

2. b>Composition: Second, I transcribe the interview. I feel it’s very important to capture the client’s voice and figures of speech. I know I have done my job, when clients tell me that their family members have told them, "It sounds just like you."

3. Review drafts: Clients are given three opportunities to review drafts of the work-in- progress and select memorabilia to include in the book, such as photographs, important family letters and certificates.

4. Publication: I publish the story in 30 hardcover books.

5. Book-signing party: Finally, I recommend clients distribute their memoir at a book-signing party.

RD: The book-signing party sounds marvellous . . .

MOT: These are family occasions at which the narrator is honoured by a gathering of loved ones. Parties have been held in parks, homes, restaurants and in conjunction with other events, such as a wedding, anniversary or birthday. Sometimes, children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren fly in from across the country to receive their special book, which becomes a family heirloom. In a 2007 company survey, 50 per cent of respondents reported holding book-signing parties.

RD: Some people donate their memoirs to the local historical society?

MOT: Yes, this is a wonderful way of winding up the project if the client lives in Minnesota. We go to the Minnesota Historical Society, where we meet with a member of the staff, who accepts a copy of the memoir for their collection. Then, as a parting gesture, I treat the narrator and family to lunch.

Military veterans are also encouraged to submit a copy of their memoir to the Veterans History Project, which preserves stories of wartime veterans in the Library of Congress. I also encourage clients to donate copies to their local synagogue, church or some other community agency important to them. Two of my clients have had their memoirs accepted by the Smithsonian Library in Washington, D.C.

RD: How do you feel older adults benefit from recording their life stories?

MOT: As I expected, there is usually a sense of elation. And when I have the opportunity to deliver the books in person, most narrators shed tears of joy on opening up the book, knowing their story has been recorded for future generations.

To my surprise, clients have told me that they love to read their own story over and over to themselves. Reading it makes them feel good about their accomplishments. As one 90-year-old explained, "It’s like sitting down to reminisce with an old friend who never goes away."

Most adult children say they discover new stories about their loved ones. Also, some families credit having an elder’s life story recorded with healing family estrangements. For example, one longtime divorced client invited his former mate to his book-signing party, to the delight of all.

RD: What are the pitfalls?

MOT: There are several. Narrators and sometimes even family members want to include information that is hurtful to others or to reveal a family secret that has never before been told. Sometimes narrators want to compare themselves to others or even compare their children, which I will not allow. I insist the memoir focus on the narrator’s own story.

More obviously, people may have experienced severe trauma such as war, an airplane crash or other unresolved issues. These events can trigger serious turmoil for some clients, as they recount their stories. This is why I recommend obtaining an agreement in advance that, if unhappy memories cause distress, the client will seek therapy. And this is why I believe only professionals trained to handle such situations should be offering the service.

RD: I am looking for someone to record an elderly relative’s story, what tips do you have for me?

MOT: Here’s what I suggest:

Check out the business. Does it have a good track record?
What are the credentials of the practitioners?
Will they provide a list of previous clients for reference?
Are they willing to show samples of their work?
What will the final product look like?
What will it cost, and how long will it take to complete?
Does your family member feel comfortable in the interview process?
If things don’t go well, is there an escape clause in the contract?