Why our stories are important

I once gave a workshop called the Watershed of Memory. In nature, a watershed is the area of land where all water on or under it drains (see picture).

We are each a watershed of memory. We hold a river of family stories and everything that has happened in our lives, not merely the events, but the thoughts, dreams, triumphs, conversations, jokes, disappointments, sorrows, the vibrant joys and deepest fears.

Each of us is unique and irreplaceable. If we do not tell our stories, they are lost. Think of the things we wish we knew about the people who have died, our grandparents and great-grandparents. What was daily life like for them? What did they eat and who prepared it? How did they dress and where did the clothes come from? What were their hopes? We wish we could hear them talking, telling us how they got along. We get to know people by getting inside them, and we learn more about who we are by knowing those who came before us.

This is all precious stuff, not to be wasted or lost. My aunt Marguerite once compiled a family history, page after page of who married whom and who they begat. It was boring reading until the end when she told a story. My great aunt had been a missionary. She gave up marriage and left the young man who loved her to go serve the Methodist Church in China. When she retired, she came home to Mississippi. One Sunday in church, looking across the room, she saw that man, older, but looking across the room at her as he had all those years before. After church, he asked if he might come calling. They courted, married, and had a joyous life together, no less wonderful for being brief.

This is what we want to know, not a list of names, but the stories behind the names, the details that bring a name to life.

If you are young and lucky enough to have your grandparents or parents alive, get them to write their stories. If they say no, or they can’t, sit them down and listen. Older people think they bore young people, and this may be true; but if you ask the right questions, you won’t be bored by the answers, and you will have saved another tributary of that watershed.

If you can’t think what to ask, use the wonderful list put together by Story Corps, which invites family and friends to interview each other. These recordings are archived at the Library of Congress. If you listen to NPR, you will hear one of these stories each Friday. They are touching, sometimes heart-rending, because they are real and filled with the kinds of detail that puts you inside another person’s life.

Here are the Story Corps questions for you, your siblings, and anyone whose memory has been part of your watershed. Don’t try and tackle the entire list; choose a few of your favorites  and begin with those. These are great writing prompts when you’re feeling stuck in your own story

Great questions for anyone

 What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?

Who was the most important person in your life? Can you tell me about him or her?

Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did they teach you?

Who has been the kindest to you in your life?

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?

What is your earliest memory?

Are there any words of wisdom you’d like to pass along to me?

What are you proudest of in your life?

When in life have you felt most alone?

How has your life been different than what you’d imagined?

How would you like to be remembered?

Do you have any regrets?

What does your future hold?

Is there anything that you’ve never told me but want to tell me now?

Is there something about me that you’ve always wanted to know but have never asked?


 What is your first memory of me?

Was there a time when you didn’t like me?

What makes us such good friends?

How would you describe me? How would you describe yourself?

Where will we be in 10 years? 20 years?

Do you think we’ll ever lose touch with each other?

Is there anything that you’ve always wanted to tell me but haven’t?


 Where did you grow up?

What was your childhood like?

Who were your favorite relatives?

Do you remember any of the stories they used to tell you?

How did you and grandma/grandpa meet?

What was my mom/dad like growing up?

Do you remember any songs that you used to sing to her/him? Can you sing them now?

Was she/he well-behaved?

What is the worst thing she/he ever did?

What were your parents like?

What were your grandparents like?

How would you like to be remembered?

Are you proud of me?

 Raising children

When did you first find out that you’d be a parent? How did you feel?

Can you describe the moment when you saw your child for the first time?

How has being a parent changed you?

What are your dreams for your children?

Do you remember when your last child left home for good?

Do you have any favorite stories about your kids?


 Do you remember what was going through your head when you first saw me?

How did you choose my name?

What was I like as a baby? As a young child?

Do you remember any of the songs you used to sing to me? Can you sing them now?

What were my siblings like?
What were the hardest moments you had when I was growing up?

If you could do everything again, would you raise me differently?

What advice would you give me about raising my own kids?

What are your dreams for me?

How did you meet mom/dad?

Are you proud of me?

 Growing up

 When and where were you born?

Where did you grow up?

What was it like?

Who were your parents?

What were your parents like?

How was your relationship with your parents?

Did you get into trouble? What was the worst thing you did?

Do you have any siblings? What were they like growing up?

What did you look like?

How would you describe yourself as a child? Were you happy?

What is your best memory of childhood? Worst?

Did you have a nickname? How’d you get it?

Who were your best friends? What were they like?

How would you describe a perfect day when you were young?

What did you think your life would be like when you were older?

Do you have any favorite stories from your childhood?


 Did you enjoy school?

What kind of student were you?

What would you do for fun?

How would your classmates remember you?

Are you still friends with anyone from that time in your life?

What are your best memories of grade school/high school/college/graduate school? Worst memories?

Was there a teacher or teachers who had a particularly strong influence on your life? Tell me about them.

Do you have any favorite stories from school?

 Love & Relationships

 Do you have a love of your life?

When did you first fall in love?

Can you tell me about your first kiss?

What was your first serious relationship?

Do you believe in love at first sight?

Do you ever think about previous lovers?

What lessons have you learned from your relationships?

 Marriage & Partnerships

 How did you meet your husband/wife?

How did you know he/she was “the one”?

How did you propose?

What were the best times? The most difficult times?

Did you ever think of getting divorced?

Did you ever get divorced? Can you tell me about it?

What advice do you have for young couples?

Do you have any favorite stories from your marriage or about your husband/wife?


 What do you do for a living?

Tell me about how you got into your line of work.

Do you like your job?

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?

What did you want to be when you grew up?

What lessons has your work life taught you?

If you could do anything now, what would you do? Why?

Do you plan on retiring? If so, when? How do you feel about it?

Do you have any favorite stories from your work life?


 Can you tell me about your religious beliefs/spiritual beliefs? What is your religion?

Have you experienced any miracles?

What was the most profound spiritual moment of your life?

Do you believe in God?

Do you believe in the after-life? What do you think it will be like?

When you meet God, what do you want to say to Him?

 Serious Illness

 Can you tell me about your illness?

Do you think about dying? Are you scared?

How do you imagine your death?

Do you believe in an after-life?

Do you regret anything?

Do you look at your life differently now than before you were diagnosed?

Do you have any last wishes?

If you were to give advice to me or my children, or even children to come in our family, what would it be?

What have you learned from life? The most important things?

Has this illness changed you? What have you learned?

How do you want to be remembered?

 Family heritage

 What is your ethnic background?

Where is your mom’s family from? Where is your dad’s family from?

Have you ever been there? What was that experience like?

What traditions have been passed down in your family?

Who were your favorite relatives?

Do you remember any of the stories they used to tell you?

What are the classic family stories? Jokes? Songs?


 Were you in the military?

Did you go to war? What was it like?

How did war change you?

During your service, can you recall times when you were afraid?

What are your strongest memories from your time in the military?

What lessons did you learn from this time in your life?

 Remembering a loved one

 What was your relationship to _____?

Tell me about _____.

What is your first memory of _____?

What is your best memory of _____?

What is your most vivid memory of _____?

What did _____ mean to you?

Are you comfortable/ can you talk about _____’s death? How did _____ die?

What has been the hardest thing about losing _____?

What would you ask _____ if _____ were here today?

What do you miss most about _____?

How do you think _____ would want to be remembered?

Can you talk about the biggest obstacles _____ overcame in life?

Was there anything you and _____ disagreed about, fought over, or experienced some conflict around?

What about _____ makes you smile?

What was your relationship like?

What did _____ look like?

Did you have any favorite jokes _____ used to tell?

Do you have any stories you want to share about _____?

What were _____’s hopes and dreams for the future?

Is there something about _____ that you think no one else knows?

How are you different now than you were before you lost _____?

What is the image of _____ that persists?

Do you have any traditions to honor _____?

What has helped you the most in your grief?

What are the hardest times?

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