Dr Dolly’s Mine Your Memories Column #4
Overviews, Bios, Obits Ask 7 Magic ???????
By Dr. Dolly A. Berthelot ©2021
Overviews of our own lives or those of others may be or become desirable and even essential for various purposes: to grow personally or professionally, to honor or celebrate, to mark special occasions, to leave a legacy, or to say the final goodbye. Anyone may warrant, deserve, need, or benefit from a biography or autobiography, or benefit others with them. Let’s face it. Ultimately everyone, presumably, will at least need an obituary, and writing that overview is never easy.
Every story requires eliciting–deep probing, using appropriate and cogent questions.
Last month we addressed the BIG THREE GOLDEN QUESTIONS that anyone considering any kind of life stories or memoirs should consider as most fundamental to the project. Once you determine, as least tentatively, why you want to explore and tell a story and the basic form you’ll use to tell it and for what audience, and what you are willing and able to invest to achieve your intention, you move to the nitty gritty.
We’ll focus now on doing a story about someone else, particularly someone you know. This season of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and Memorial Day is an ideal time to consider parents or parental figures, though the questions discussed can apply to anyone and any kind of story. For obituaries, these seven questions can come to the rescue in the most difficult circumstances—unless you or another person is wise enough to write one in advance.
YOUR 7 MAGIC QUESTIONS
Rooted in basic journalism, here are the vital questions that will serve you well for any story: WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, HOW, and sometimes, HOW MUCH.
★ WHO?—Who is this person now? Who were they in the distant and the more recent past? Who are they to you? Who are they to others? Who are those significant others?
For a book, Who questions alone may take pages or chapters to address. One challenge is exploring and capturing the multiple perspectives. No one is only a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, daughter or son, friend, church member, boss, teacher, or any worker/professional, vital as those roles may be. If the subject is still alive, be sure to ask about every other role in their life, as well as the one that may seem most central to you. If possible, communicate with various other people who know them in other roles. Even parents, viewed by different off springs, may seem like quite different people, even more so if there are variations in sibling gender, age, personality, race, intelligence, education, religion, politics, and other human or historic factors that impinge on perspective and thus perception. The eldest born, like me, oldest of seven, may experience a totally different life with those same parents or grandparents, be part of a totally different era than the youngest. Consider such factors in relation to your subject AND in relation to other people you may interview about your subject. This issue intersects with the WHEN questions to come.
One of my favorite quotes has long been this Chinese maxim: We see the world, not as it is, but as we are. Pondering this has great value in any life story writing, especially as you consider the perspectives and perceptions of different people.
★ WHAT?—What world did this person come into and live through? What are or were their hopes and dreams? Their fears and concerns? Their disappointments and regrets? What did they do, accomplish, care about, want to do that they didn’t? What trials or triumphs marked their life? What was their home like? What do or did they value, believe, and espouse most fervently? What kind of legacy do they leave? Of course the particular purpose of the story determines which of such questions are most appropriate and most salient, but you want to have all in your tools for potential digging.
★ WHEN?—When was the subject born? You can usually begin better than merely banally stating that date, but it is absolutely essential to make timing clear early in any overview story, show where the individual fits in history. Simply stating age is also an option, in some situations. Newspapers and magazines have traditionally required ages be stated, often to the chagrin of the source or person interviewed or written about. For longer stories, it is important to keep reiterating and reaffirming that WHEN factor, putting things in historic context as much as possible. That means both in the subject’s personal history (when X occurred, how old were they or what grade were they in, or what decade of their life?) AND, what was going on in the larger world at the time, from popular culture to politics and war. What is the significance of that historic context to the person’s life, or sometimes even this person’s impact on the larger history!
★ WHERE?—Sometimes the WHERE is a particularly crucial factor. Some novelists or memoirists make it a key element, almost a main character in their books. WHERE is always important in any life overview story. Where did the person grow up, move, live longest, travel, get educated, work, achieve something significant? Where did X happen? In some cases, where did they get hurt or get sick, physically or emotionally? Setting is a vital part of any story, nonfiction certainly no less than fiction. In fact, nonfiction is more challenging in that nonfiction requires absolute accuracy, and names, including place names, are not always easy to get right.
★ WHY?—WHY can be a bit more nebulous and often harder even for the subject to answer. Why did X happen? Why did the subject do X? WHY did someone closely connected to the subject do X? Motive is a crucial element in crime investigations and legal strategies, and in stories as well. WHY is often the most difficult yet most intriguing piece of the story. In any case, does the subject know these answers? If not, saying that may be pertinent; explaining it, even better. The interviewer and writer’s job is to ask. The best advice my Mama gave us was “You don’t get what you don’t ask for.” The elicitor’s job is to ask, ask, ask. Don’t avoid, don’t resist. Don’t be shy. Ask. If you are also the source or subject, do your best to answer. The better the questions, the better the answers. The better the answers, the better the story.
★ HOW?—Some stories or articles are all about HOW. Explanations about how one can or should do or make something are among the most popular in today’s magazines. However, HOW may also be pertinent to the various types of overview stories. How did you know you wanted to be or do X? How did you achieve or accomplish or overcome X? How do or did you feel about X? That last one is often portrayed on TV or in movies as insensitive reporters rudely thrusting microphones into the faces of shocked or grieving family members and seeming to obnoxiously demand, “HOW do/did you feel?” Yet that truly is often a salient question that must be asked, answered, and reported.
★ HOW MUCH?—This was not one of the original six that have served journalists and other writers so well, but it should be considered. How much does or did that cost is the obvious example—and cost may go beyond monetary. What did that decision or behavior cost you? And How much do or did you care about that? How much effort did that require? How much do/did you love someone or did someone love you?
ONE EXAMPLE OF THE “SHOVELS” WELL USED
Together, those seven basic interrogatives serve as magic shovels to uncover factual gems that may be purposely buried or simply hidden deep in memory.
Sometimes you dig, find gems, and they become central pieces of the story. That was certainly true for my book about a Creek Indian man who dreamed big, used military life to climb out of poverty and flew through historic adventures. Jack Colbert’s grown children hired me to explore and tell the tale. You can bet I repeatedly used every one of these magic questions to dig ever deeper. Jack was exceedingly taciturn and modest, qualities that pose their own challenges. Even so, the seven questions, deftly and repeatedly used, will get you where you need to go. Often, after losing a loved one, people regret most what they never asked. Ask before it’s too late!
Sometimes, what seem to be isolated facts soon reveal patterns, patterns that a vigilant interviewer notices and a skilled writer uses. It became evident that several anecdotes Jack Colbert told suggested a pattern of “Taking Control,” so I made that a central theme and the title of the small book. The subtitle suggests three key aspects of his life.
Click this title now to read the short introduction to Taking Control—Creek Roots, Airman Wings, Family Heart. Brief as that intro is, notice how details touch on and weave in answers to many of our seven questions. (The subsequent opening chapter then immediately presents other answers.) Note how the brief but packed introduction, a classic overview, not only addresses many of our seven questions, but carefully works in details intended to suggest the whole and nudge the reader forward. Creating such a capsule requires extensive exploration followed by fastidious crafting. Although this originated as an intro to the longer biography, it could stand alone. It captures the person in ways that might well be used (orally or in writing) for a celebratory occasion, such as a special birthday, or as a fitting eulogy, or even as the memorable core of a obituary, if someone adds such essentials as survivors (more who? answers), funeral or memorial arrangements, and potential donations (more what?, where?, and when?).
Never stop questioning. You may uncover real value, and you won’t know till you keep digging to find those precious answers. THEN you—or a hired hand–begin the fine crafting that makes readers care to read. But that’s another story, for another time.
For a directory of this entire series, see Dr. Dolly’s Mine Your Memories.
Header image credit: Dolly Berthelot, © 2021.