One day I was talking with someone who dearly wished to know her grandmother’s stories but said that her Chinese grandmother had unspeakable memories of her youth during WWII. The grandmother therefore refused to talk about any of her childhood memories at all. This is a sensitive issue worth its own discussion topic.
After thinking about this young woman’s dilemma for awhile, I decided to incorporate my answer into presentations I give about writing memoirs. My own mother’s youth was not without emotional pain, and the story of the end of her marriage is something I prefer not to remind her of as all the anger comes burning to the surface – yet these hurts are written about in our Cherry Blossoms in Twilight book. How did I get these stories?
My mother is quite open about her pain. She does not choose to hide the unpleasant parts of her life. Still, I had to be careful when asking about certain subjects because it is so easy for her to begin to dwell on the anger or sadness. I would ask a few questions or discuss one aspect of a story and then move on to something light-hearted or happy. I would never ask about something painful late in the day because the mind likes to rehash events during the night. Sometimes I wrote sections by myself because I already knew certain unhappy parts of her life – I was there. So, treading very carefully and considerately into someone’s river of pain is one way of drawing out important stories… feeling the current of the person’s thoughts and never going so deep that they begin to drown. It is all about what THEY are ready to say.