For months—maybe years—piles of photographs covered her dining room table. Not just photographs, but also old Kodak slides, yellowed newspaper clippings, treasured greeting cards, and miscellaneous handwritten notes. These were the building blocks of the story she wanted to share.
But she struggled with how to tell this story. What to include. Whom to leave out. Where to begin and end. The piles of memories began to feel like walls closing in on her. Finally she called me for help.
She packed up all the piles and brought them to me in a large cardboard box one evening. We met for three hours, and I listened to the stories—of her parents, of her in-laws, of her kids, of their kids. I could see all the work she had already put into the project.
I could also see there was much more to do.
This woman wants to tell her story. She wants her kids and their spouses and children to know some things about her. And she wants her story to mean something to them, to remind them of her values after she’s gone.
But she vacillates between confidence and doubt. “How could I be so selfish?” she tells me at our second meeting. “I was so worried about getting all my photos and memories organized, and I have hardly anything about my grandkids! My grandkids are everything to me—how could I be so selfish not to include them?”
I reassure her: “This is your story—of course it’s about you! And you’re the only one who can tell it. Your grandkids may be a part of your story, but you don’t have to tell that part in this book—they already know that part. Why don’t we focus on telling them the parts they don’t know? After all, you can’t include everything.”
She disagrees: “Oh no, I have to include everything.”
But that’s exactly wrong. No life story includes everything. If it did, it would take another lifetime to read it! And it would be selfish to assume that even your family is interested in all your daily details.
Editing your life story is necessary if you want people to read it.
After a couple more hours of talking and listening, and after one more meeting where she brings over one more bin of photos and mementos, my client is ready to trust me. She concedes that she is too close to the story, too overwhelmed with the process. She needs the outsider’s objectivity I can bring to the project. Having heard her heart, I know what she wants to accomplish. But not being emotionally attached to her memories, I can provide the perspective she needs.
And so the journey begins.
Being a buffer
Now the piles of photos are on my table. I’m reading the notes and re-sorting the categories, waiting for organizational inspiration to crystallize. Then the doorbell rings.
It’s my client’s husband. He’s delivering another bag of photos that his wife found. She’s captioned them all so I’ll know why they’re important to her. The husband says, “She promises this is the final batch.”
Maybe. We’ll see. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter. The work is mine now, and I can’t let even my client distract me from the editing and sorting I need to do. I might use these new photos; I might not. It’s my editorial choice.
And my client can’t verbalize it, but that’s why she hired me. She’s paying me to make the decisions because she needs a buffer between herself and her self-criticism.
You see, if she decides to eliminate a photo, she feels guilty for snubbing someone. If I decide to eliminate a photo, her guilt is absolved. I can trim and edit with a surgeon’s detachment, and she can wake up when it’s all over and just be grateful it’s done.
That’s what I’m here for
At this point I can’t predict what the final book will look like or how long it will take to put it all together. But I know I’ve already served my client just by letting her know I’ll take care of it.
That’s what I’m here for.
2 thoughts on “Editing your life story”
What an honor to have the opportunity to tell–and edit–someone’s life story. Sound like an amazing experience. Would love to hear more as your work continues.
Thanks Amanda. You’re right—it is an honor (and a big responsibility) to be trusted like this. I don’t take that for granted. I think there’s an emotional connection that happens with my best writing. It’s not “just a job.” It’s personal.
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