Written by: Devon Noel Lee
“I would never do such an idiotic stunt.”
Those are the words of my teenage daughter when she was in a group interview and asked a ‘thought provoking’ character question.
She was asked the question, “If there was a steal beam between two skyscrapers, what would you walk across it for?”
Others at her table said they would cross the beam for their dogs, their family, and perhaps world peace. Without missing a beat, she responded, “I would never do such an idiotic stunt.”
You see, my daughter didn’t look at this as a question of ‘What do you treasure so much that you would do nearly anything for to save?’. Instead, she’s looking at the practicality of the situation.
First, she has no special training to cross a steel beam. Second, physics was telling her she’d likely lose her balance and plummet to her death. When someone suggested that water might be underneath, she quipped “Water wouldn’t save you. By the speed of your descent and how much you’d weigh, you would die upon impact, as if you’d landed on concrete. Your spine would snap, along with other limbs.”
Someone suggested that another person might catch her, like Spiderman did when he tried to catch Gwen Stacy from such a drop. She quickly pointed out that the physics again would not hold up and that her neck would snap, much like the cause of Gwen Stacy’s death.
I love this story because her responses tell you a number of things about her. For one, she really pays attention to the questions she is asked. Second, she evaluates situations for chances of survival before determining her course of action. Third, she reads a lot! I failed to mention that she knew all of this from reading the book, The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios.
Now, what does this have to do with you?
Have you ever felt stuck when attempting to write your personal history? Have you ever felt you don’t have a story to tell? Do you not know where to begin?
You can use questions to trigger memories or your natural responses that tell your story and about your personality and interests, much the same way this group interview question encapsulates my daughter. Some of the best memory triggers are known as writing prompts.
Where can you find writing prompts?
There are books full of questions and lines where you can write questions about yourself. One personal memoir question book boasted 348 pages of questions with plenty of room to write responses. For many, this is a great resource. For others, the format is approach is too formal and not very specific.
You could search online for “personal history writing prompts,” “pageant interview questions,” or “character interview questions.” Many of these questions are perfect and since they’re not in a bound book, they are more causal.
When you do find writing prompts that trigger your memories, be sure that your answers are more ‘real’ like my daughter’s and not phony like the Miss Congeniality movie answer to every pageant question is, “World Peace.”
Choose questions that strike your fancy and really help paint a picture of who you are. Then, answer them as you really would with a favorite beverage in hand while talking to your closest friend. If you would cross a steel beam across two skyscrapers for your dog, go ahead and provide that answer. Yours doesn’t have to be like my daughter’s, just be sure you are being you. Why exactly would you risk breaking your neck to save your dog?
While you’re answering questions in your true voice, don’t feel like every writing prompt should be answered. Yet, I offer a few suggestions.
1. Select questions that are narrow in focus and that you are capable of answering.
A wide prompt would be, “Tell me about your childhood.” Oh dear. That was long time ago and I would not know how to begin answering that.
A more focused prompt would be, “You grew up watching a lot of early morning cartoons, which were your favorite and why?”
For me, this is a great question which I can answer that fairly easily. If you didn’t grow up watching early morning cartoons, you can’t answer this question. So, although narrow in focus, you would skip such a question because it doesn’t apply.
2. Respond questions that inspire you.
Not every question will resonate with you. In a writing class once, someone said her favorite prompt is “What was something that turned out better than you expected?” Many individuals around me quickly started writing from their memory bank. I sat there stumped. I couldn’t answer this question then and I could force an answer now.
So, I would do well to skip such a question.
3. It’s okay to modify a question
Back to the question just mentioned, I could answer when I modified it. The thought came to my mind of the story of how I turned out better than my mother-in-law expected. When I modified a writing prompt, I was able to write about the day I first met my soon-to-be mother-in-law.
If you have the desire to record your memories or the stories of your family, yet you’re stuck, remember my daughter and how she responded to the steel beam question. Then seek out writing prompts that will bring out your personality.
Are you willing to break your neck for your dog rescuer or would you say “I’ll pass”?
Devon Noel Lee is a family historian, author, lecturer and mother of five home schooled children. She’s a crazed Texas A&M fan and loves BBQ and Lemonade. Capturing and preserving family stories so her ancestors come alive is her passion.