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Where Do You Start in a Life Story Interview?

Updated: Jun 26

Anywhere, Any Time

You can start anywhere, any time, such as where /when the interviewee or family members want to start. Since life is constantly evolving, life story interviews can be picked up and dropped off at any point in our adult life, when we are changing careers, moving into a new environment, preparing for end-of-life or making any one of the multible transitions we make in our life. Interviews can be recorded into audio, video, or written stories, framed, and shared in public media or stored away in ourpersonal or family's intellectual living room.

If you are the interviewer, what kinds of questions might you ask? If you are the interviewee, what kinds of questions might you be asked?

Early-Life Questions

  • Whom did you admire when you were growing up?

  • What were your earliest recollections?

  • What were your favorite books/magazines//TV shows?/films?

The above three questions were proposed by Mark Savickas, PhD, in his Career Construction Theory. Mark is one of the most well-respected career counseling educators in the world today. Why start with the interviewee's early life experiences? Because those early experiences have the strongest influence on our entire life, including our career and personal life. For example, when I was under eight-years old, at an extended family party, my cousins and I were drawing pictures. My cousins laughed at my picture, which was abstract, while all their pictures were more concrete/realistic. But when we showed our pictures to the adults, they loved my picture. The adults' positive reinforcement gave me confidence to accept that creative part of me throughout my life.

We can go back even further than our early life. For example, two of my great uncles were musicians, one of whom taught piano lessons and trained a child prodegy, the other of whom (he died before I was born) played the violin with a symphony orchestra. In mid-adulthood, my father taught himself to play the piano and sang in his college choir. Now in my later years, I am devoted to music, which is why most of what I write about includes music.

Building on Mark's Career Construction Theory, I propose three more questions to ask interviewees, related to their early life:

  • Where did you live?

  • What was the environment like?

  • What did you like to do?

Depending upon the interviewee's age/stage/ background/ability, the rest of the interview will unroll naturally, and if time and energy allows, end up with such questions as the following:

  • Where are you now?

  • Where are you going?

  • How are you going to get there?

Throughout-Life Questions

Our lives continue, regardless of how many times we change our work/hobbies/interests or go in and out of caregiving. Anna Miller-Tiedeman, PhD, who, like Mark, is a prolific author and educator, says. "There is no career; life is career." Career is both paid and unpaid work. Anna cared for both her husband and her mother, for a total of about 30 years, co-authoring with both of them seven books. When I was distance-caregiving for my mother, I conducted audio interviews with industry experts, who also happened to be caregivers and/or care receivers.

How Can You Learn from Caregivers?

Still eager to learn about caregiving, while caregiving through distance with my mother, I authored a book on Career & Caregiving: Empowering the Shadow Workforce of Family Caregivers, which included stories of 14 caregivers, who also were counselors and other caring professionals. Interviewing these caregivers was a great way for me to learn about caregiving. I organized the chapters by the following stages of caregiving:

  • Preparing for caregving

  • In the midst of caregiving

  • Recovering from caregiving

  • Moving forward

  • Moving in and out of caregiving

  • Caregiving as a continual life process

Thirty-six % of family caregivers care for a parent, and 7 out 10 caregivers are caring for loved ones over 50. 78% of adults living in the community needing long-term care have to depend on family and friends as their only source of help. Source. Caregivers can seek both technical and interviewing support to conduct a life story interview. Depending on our technical and interviewing ability, we may prefer to enlist the assistance of a professional interviewer to record the interview and to integrate voice/video with photos, maps, music and other sensory resources.

When Do You End a Life Story Interview?

There's no endpoint to a life story interview. Its value to you, your loved ones and others is immeasurable. For example, just a few years ago, I told a piece of my life story to the Rosie the Riveter Memorial Team, then created a banner for the Rosie the Riveter Wall of Honor in Richmond, CA, for my mother, who was a reporter and one of the first recruiters who helped women and adults with disabilities find work during WWII. When I created the banner, it was the first time I realized that I have followed her footsteps by becoming an interviewer, writer and career/life transitions counselor and providing service to underrepresented people throughout my adult life. I can continue these actvitivies, however many hours of the day I devote to these activities, for the rest of my life.

One of my ancestors, dating back hundeds of years, was a travelling rabbi. He was both a storyteller and teacher, preferring to offer his services to the general population, rather than to lead a wealthy congregation, which his father-in-law offered him. In a way, I am following his footsteps, by earning a Doctorate in International & Multicultural Education and by listening to elders' stories.

Just before the Pandemic, I interviewed Rita Abrams, one of my favorite local elder heroines. View A Rita Abrams Retrospective . Rita, who started out as an elementary school teacher, wrote the lyrics to "Mill Valley," a nation-wide famous song. She also composed the music and lyrics for "Pride & Prejudice The Musical," which, after a challenging three Pandemic years, is finally playing live (with great reviews). Rita, now in her late 70s, told me recently that she intends to make the Musical available to more audiences nationwide. Rita keeps her life story moving forward!!!

Why and How Caregivers are Telling Their Stories

We all have stories to tell and to hear, which is why I prefer to call caregivers and care receivers "care partners."

Why tell your story:

  • Explore roots/family/cultural history

  • Move from stress to strength

  • Get support, support others

  • Gain wisdom, self-awareness, self confidence

  • Shift from role to soul

  • Keep memories alive

  • Manage transitions

  • Experience catharsis

  • Identify options

How to tell your story:

  • Read/write/watch/listen to caregiving stories

  • Share family/cultural/holiday recipes

  • Record voice/video

  • Retrieve family photos

  • Integrate voice/video with photos, maps, music and other sensory resources

  • Seek technical and interviewing support to tell your story, as needed

Possible benefits of telling your story::

  • Increase physical, spiritual, and emotional strength and flexibility

  • Explore how you can apply your strengths in your work/life

  • Increase awareness of career/caregiving options

  • Pass on your wisdom to others

  • Gain psychological, philosophical, scientific, historical, spiritual insights.

  • Enhance technology skills

Whether you’ve never told your story or told it a million times, whether you're a caregiver or care receiver, or care partner, it’s never too late to tell your story or to listen to another person's life story.

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