Sharon Lippincott Q&A

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I’m proud to present the 14th Q&A in my series of interviews with storytelling practitioners. I came across Sharon Lippincott’s blog and her book, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, as a result of my interest in the connection between storytelling and journaling/lifestory writing. I’ve gotten to know her just a bit better since she founded (with Jerry Waxler) and I joined a Yahoo discussion group, Lifewriters Forum.


Sharon 9-12-03  450x630.jpg In her blog, also called The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, Sharon says of herself: “I’m an observer and interpreter of the life experience and author of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing and The Albuquerque Years. My passion is writing lifestories and memoir and helping others discover how to find and express their unique stories.” Learn more about her on her Web site.


Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?

A: Several years ago I heard someone on NPR describe “The Confetti Generation.” He explained with increasing diversity in our culture, over one hundred television stations to choose from, the Internet to take you anywhere in the world, and similar factors, society was becoming fragmented, without much cultural cohesion. Connections between people were breaking down and their souls were suffering. I think people are hungry to rebuild this sense of connection, and we are doing this through the medium of stories, whether oral or written.
My specialty is written stories. Computer technology seems to be the primary force in this current explosion of life writing. Few people would bother writing more than a few pages if they didn’t have computers on their desks to make it easy to edit, compile, print, and share with an unlimited audience. Print-on-demand publishing has made it feasible to create bound books for about the same cost as photocopies. Technology is empowering people to realize dreams they wouldn’t have had in the past.
Coupled with that, interest in genealogy has skyrocketed as people are now able to sit at their desk and search archives the world over, connecting with other researchers, sharing scans, and making contact with relatives they never knew they had. The realization that most ancestors have been reduced to nothing more than names on sketchy public records is sobering, and motivates many to take steps to ensure their descendants will know something about the person who bore that name.
Some are writing about the past in the hopes that a way of life will be encased in a written time capsule of sorts, In little more than one hundred years, our nation has gone from horse-powered transportation to space probes. I want my descendants to know what life was like in the mid-twentieth century, and about changes that have occurred over the course of my life. I suspect that some drastic changes lie ahead rather soon, and I want them to know how those changes impacted me and people I know.
Finally, many are discovering that writing about their past brings richer meaning to it. They savor the good times and in retrospect, often find hidden blessings in the darker moments.
Q: How important is it to you and your work to function within the framework of a particular definition of “story?” (i.e., What is a story?) What definition do you espouse?
A: Beyond reminding people that stories have a beginning, middle and end, and that they will be easier for strangers to understand if they answer the “Five F questions: who, what, why, when and where,” I don’t espouse any particular definition of story or story form. I encourage people to write in any way that feels natural and spontaneous to them. There is no wrong way to write, and prescribing forms and styles will stifle more people than it will help. Some few will aspire to more polish. That’s great too. There are many fine books, my own included, to help those who want guidance.
I often use the example of one of my grandmothers who wrote her autobiography when she was about seventy. It is short, and consists of disjointed paragraphs that often raise more questions than they answer. She commits nearly every blunder a lifestory writer could imagine. She comes across as a nut case. But … she took the time to do this, and I treasure every word.
My mother began writing her lifestory, but was unable to finish before the end of her life. She didn’t tell anyone about this, and we only found her drafts after her death. What a treasure! I compiled what she had written, editing only to fix typos and correct documented factual errors. The story of her girlhood will live on for generations.
Thus my constant admonition, “Any lifestory you write, no matter how crude and unfinished, is better than writing nothing.”
To date, my personal preference has been for writing short vignettes about specific memories. I now have over five hundred of these vignettes and am feeling the urge to begin compiling selected ones into more coherent memoir format.

Q: What future trends or directions do you foresee for story/storytelling/narrative? What’s next for the discipline?What future aspirations do you personally have for your own story work? What would you like to do in the story world that you haven’t yet done?

A: Until recently, most of the impetus I’m aware of was focused on writing. But the desire to leave a legacy of life stories is often most urgent in people who are unable for one reason or another to write. The growing availability of digital recording equipment and camcorders is opening the option of audio/visual legacies, instead of writing, or as a supplement to writing. This form of “story catching” is becoming especially prevalent in nursing homes, hospices, and other late-life facilities. I am eager to continue exploring these multi-media avenues as an adjunct to writing.

Q: What inspired you to want to guide other people in crafting lifewriting and generously offering so many tips to lifewriters (and co-founding the Life Writers Forum Yahoo group) — “helping others discover how to find and express their unique stories?” Did you have someone who similarly mentored you?

A: My professional career was in training and staff development coaching. During that time I wrote a book about how to conduct more effective meetings, and had dozens of articles published. Writing was my favorite part of my career. When I retired, I began writing about my early life for my grandchildren and fell in love with lifestory writing. I began teaching workshops on the topic as a way to keep my own writing flowing and my skills growing.
I’ve learned most of what I know, whether it’s about writing, using computers, or anything else, from reading, trying things out and hanging out with other people doing those things. In my mind, knowledge is like air, and should be as freely available as air. I teach because I love to teach, but also because I always learn more than my students each time I go to class.
Jerry Waxler and I founded the Life Writers Forum because we love the energy of group interaction and the only firmly established national organization for life writers adamantly refuses to admit male members. I find that the constant influx of new ideas and questions keeps me on my toes, continually advancing the boundaries of my own thinking, and pushing me to take further steps in developing my skills and broadening my interests.
One of my mentors in my graduate course in counseling psychology constantly urged me to focus on writing, claiming I had a gift for it. He’s the one who kindled my interest and and got me started, though I suspected that part of the reason he encouraged my writing was his recognition that I was ill-suited for a career in the field I was training for. (That turned out to be true.) Since then, my writing mentors have resided between the covers of their books.

Q: Among storytellers I’m doing Q&As with, you place a much higher importance on writing than most. What aspects of the writing process for telling your life story are most significant and satisfying for you?

A: I love reading eloquent narrative. Occasionally I find a phrase so stunningly vivid that I have to stop and linger over it, feeling the words run through my mind with the fluid grace of warm summer rivulets. I can’t do that when I’m listening to an oral narrative. I’m drawn to the printed page, and though I know eBooks will play an increasingly large role in the future, they will never replace the sensuous feel of paper between my fingers.
But it’s more than that. Writing endures and remains stable. Oral stories are soon forgotten, and even the fragments that persist are morphed over time and countless tellings. I find it richly satisfying to know that I’ve told my story, my way, and nobody can mess with it. In that same vein, I can write a whole story without interruption. When I tell a story, I may be interrupted and sidetracked with questions or comments. Then others are sure to tell one after mine, overwriting listeners’ memory space with new material. Story telling often evolves into a game of one-upsmanship. This is less likely to happen with written stories.
In the final analysis, people must follow their own gifts and inclinations. My father is a master story-teller, and nobody tries to follow his stories. I do better in writing. That’s what I’m called to do, and where my passion lies.

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Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...

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