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A Conversation with Sharon Lippincott

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When she decided to start writing her life story, Monroeville's Sharon Lippincott took the short-story approach -- little vignettes that were important and memorable to her. Today the former workplace development-and-training specialist with a master's degree in psychology spends time teaching others how to get started recording their stories. She has even written a book on the subject: The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing: How to Transform Memories Into Meaningful Stories.

How did you get interested in life-story writing?

It sort of runs in my family; my grandmother, my mother and my father all recorded their life stories. I decided when my grandchild was born that I wanted to record the stories of my life to share with my grandchildren. However, I realized that adults like them much more than children do.

How did you figure that out?

When I went to visit once, I printed out 14 pages of my story and I was ready to share them. We sat down so grandma could read her stories and I noticed the grandchildren were squirming in their seats and having a hard time listening. But then I look over at my son and he is sitting there and paying really close attention. So I let him read them to himself, and I read the kids one of their books.

My mother would kill me for asking this of a lady, but how old are you?

[Laughs] I just had the image of your mother killing you for asking that question. I don't mind telling, I'm 53 ... [Laughs.] It's not like I'm 83.

Aside from writing your own stories, you've dedicated a lot of time to teaching others how to get their stories down. How do you get the average person to go from memories to memoirs?

There are three different types of life-story writing. There's the autobiography, where you start out [using an exaggerated old codger voice]: "I was born in 1912 in Michigan ..." That's more of a documentary detailing every minute of a person's life. Then there's a memoir that tells the story of one segment of a person's life -- a job, a relationship or something like that, and adds a personal analysis. Then there's life-story writing, which is a collection of short stories where anything goes.

Which approach should most people take when starting to write down their memories?

It really does depend on the person. In my book, I don't give prescriptions for how to write. Writing is as personal and as unique as a person's fingerprint. If you're a very left-brain, organized person, you may want to write an autobiography. But if you're like me, writing short stories is the way to go.

Have you ever written anyone else's life story, or would you be open to doing that?

Some people do that. I haven't and don't think I ever would. I view writing as so personal, and I honestly believe that no one can tell a story like the person who lived it.

What makes the best stories?

The best stories are ones that let you know not only what that person did or what they went through, but who they are. You don't have to be a great writer to write your life story. My grandmother was a bit crazy, a bit of a fruit, actually [laughs], but she wrote 14 pages that were absolutely awful from a critical standpoint. The grammar was horrible, words were spelled wrong, people were introduced without [telling] who they were. But that was her point of view and it's a perfect representation of who she was. It's important to document the past so future generations know what it was like.

Why?

We are progressing so quickly as a society and maybe not all in a good way. We may someday be glad that somebody who knew how to use a needle and a thread, or hoe a field by hand, wrote down some of their experiences.

Is that why people attend your classes?

I think a lot of them just want to go back through and examine their life experiences to find more meaning in it.

But don't you also find some experiences that dredge up more regrets?

You never forget the regrets. But by going back and re-examining those experiences you can learn to appreciate the gifts and knowledge you gained from them. And whether it's a good experience or a bad one, it helped me become the person I am today.

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