Life stories aren't just for people
In part 2 (listen to part 1 here) of our interview with Janet Kirkman, we hear her talk about the refined world of show dogs and why this can be a good niche market for life stories. [Hint: stories that focus on the dogs.] And then there are the "just regular" dogs, the pets we love to pieces, who can also be the focus of a life story. Janet points out that a typical lifespan for a dog is 10-plus years. If you're a dog owner yourself, or have been in the past, think back to one of your pets and consider what was going on in your life at the time. What life changes did you experience throughout that decade?
Even if you're not doing a pet story per se, you can use a pet as a way to focus on a period in your storyteller's life. Use your own experience to generate open-ended, thought-provoking questions.
A good example (I think? I haven't read it) is Marley and Me.
A better example (because I have read it) is Travels with Charley in Search of America, by John Steinbeck. I love this book. Steinbeck and his French poodle climb into his pickup and drive across the US, a discovery journey that tells us just as much about the author as it does about America. And Charley.
Cherished possessions have stories of their own
Janet has worked with clients to tell the story of their family home and the meaningful possessions within it, such as an armoire that escaped the Nazis (when some of the family did not). Again, the objects are a way to focus in on a person's life and their roots.
Oops, part 2.
Again, sorry for the quality of the recording. I hope it's not too bothersome. I was willing to risk it in order to share Janet's great experience as a life story writer with you.
If you like show, please help others find us by leaving a review on iTunes.
Now go and save someone's (or something's) story.
Amy: 00:00 You also have a niche that you have been working in, which is writing stories about people's pets and tell everybody what it is.
Janet: It's pet stories and I had a website at one time called Spot On Stories with this little dog named spot with spots all over them. Anyway, our dog trainer. It was this really hurly burly guy. Just really, really cool. And I told him what I did and what I would like to do and he thought it was just really, really neat. And so, I got involved with some people that had show dogs and that's a whole other industry that you just never even know existed. People with show dogs are a whole different animal, so to speak, a different breed altogether. Different breed. There you go. And so, um, they have stories.
Janet: 01:02 One of my favorite projects was this, a gentleman who had actually quit his job to go around the country and show their dog and he was the dog owner, not the dog trainer. Yeah, he was the dog trainer. They, they hire, I mean, owner, they hire a trainer, so that's a whole other. And then his wife would fly in on the weekends to the dog shows. So that gives you an idea of what that's like. And uh, some of these dogs actually have planes that fly them from one show to another and one dog comes off the plane, one dog. So a chartered plane for a chartered it. Since then I've done projects for just regular old dogs if there is such a thing. I mean, it's just amazing what these animals tell us.
Janet: 01:59 Well, one of them was a, a friend's dog and he just taught her so much. She was going through this really difficult time in her life, a divorce and, and this dog was just there for her the whole time. And it was just an incredible story. I just got so much out of it and she still talks about it. That was probably five years ago. She's still talks about the book project and people see pets as their children and unlike their own kids, they’re perfect children because they don't ever grow up and they talk back.
Amy: What's that quote? I just read this quote. Uh, I saw it again recently. My goal is to be the person that my dog thinks that I am.
Janet: Yes, yes, exactly.
Amy: And it's, and it's a good it's a different perspective of looking life it's a way of making meaning and expressing that meaning it's just a slightly different perspective and like you said, I mean, I'm a dog owner.
Amy: 03:08 You're a dog owner it's a crazy strong bond that you have with your dog. So how, if, how, how does a project like that even starts? So the woman that you said several years ago that you did that, how did, how did you get the ball rolling with that? Because I know how to get the ball rolling with a life story. I know what kinds of questions to ask, but what do you do when it's, when the focus is on the dog? Well, she had heard me talking about what I do just as far as life story writing. Yes. And I told her that I had this idea and I didn't even know about her dog at the time and she said, well we should do Mister’s story. T the dog's name. Yes. Mister. And so that's how that came to be.
Amy: 03:50 And it's always this, uh, like you say, serendipitous word of mouth kind of thing that happens. It's crazy, isn't it? Because probably most of us are not in maybe introverted, maybe not terribly extroverted maybe a little bit more that way, but not terribly so because we like to sit at home and write, but you have to open your mouth and tell people what you do. Otherwise nobody will have a clue. That's right. Nobody knows that we exist unless we start talking and then when we do these things fall in our lap. Okay. So getting back to that, like what were your, were your questions really tell me about the beginning of the dog's life to, or were they more about how she related to the dog?
Janet: Well, all of it in, when you think about it, Amy you have a pet for say 10 to maybe 15 years if you're lucky.
Janet: 04:41 And so what was going on in your life during that 10 years? And that's reflected in the story in a way that it's just hard to describe actually like this woman who was going through a divorce and now she's on the other side of that and she's much more positive and you know, all that kind of thing.
Amy: And it gives you kind of a way in. It's sort of like an oblique angle into something that can be really, really difficult. Like a divorce or a death in the family or something. That's, it's such a great idea to do that. It is, it's just really, really neat. And another thing that I remember you and I talking about, this was quite awhile ago was the chance to focus on a cherished possession. So I think you had done something on a, it might've even been about a whole house, but, the thing that sticks in my memory was the armoire. I think that had traveled it, it, it had just as adventurous, have a background as any person.
Amy: 05:48 Can you talk about that and what it would mean to look at life. It's just, it's putting on different lenses again looking at life through, through how you relate to your dog through a possession that means so much and whose history goes back so far. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Janet Yes. That was part of it. I project that I did with a woman who was born in Germany and a shared her war experience. And I don't know if it's true for you, Amy, but I know in the history classes I could memorize all the dates, names and all that jazz, but I never really got it. And this woman was able to put a face on the war for me. And so since then I've had, I've done several immigrant stories and uh, that's, that's a real eyeopener. Talk about a learning experience.
Janet: 06:38 But anyway, I'm in her story. She talked about this armoire that was in her family and the Nazis were trying to take this Armar from her family and her mother, I cannot believe her mother did this, but she just practically put herself in a really bad situation to try to keep that in their family. And she was successful and now it's stands in this family room and that piece has a story and a, what we decided is that that story of that armoire will stay with the armoire. We'll probably put her whole book in there and maybe separate out the armoire and leave that in there. But yeah, so that everybody will know what that story is and what her ancestors went through for that particular piece is just phenomenal.
Amy: 07:37 And those are exactly the kind of stories that disappear if you do not record them. Oh, that is so true, right. I, my sister, so both of my parents have died within the past year and a couple of months now. And aside from grieving that, there's all of the stuff that my sister and I now and my brother-in-law that we have to dispose of and my sister just sent me a picture, the estate sale lady come in this week and was starting to price everything out. And she had some tables set up with all kinds of China and glassware and seeing this picture with these price tags of a quarter or $2 for a set of something. It was, it was very sad because it's their whole life obviously their life does not, does not reside in these possessions.
Amy: 08:36 But that was, those were the glasses that we were drinking out of at Thanksgiving. Those were the plates that we were eating off of at birthday celebrations. and to see what happens after it's been divorced from the family. The family meals in this case, it's just the family meals, it, it's not worth that much, but for the things that are really special, we don't actually have to have the items themselves. We can have the stories that were attached to those items and even photos and I know some people have they'll, they'll do live story projects that are nothing but photos with really long detailed captions. So it's more each chapter maybe or section is about a certain thing or a collection of things. And then the storyteller tells the stories about those things and like you said, you attach those to certain periods of your life.
Janet: 09:38 Another idea for people is sharing the recipes that are handed down. You mentioned thanksgiving. That kind of triggered that memory. I've taught classes on that topic as well. And that's really interesting. Whether or not you're a cook, you remember probably your favorite foods that your grandmother made or whatever into hand those down with the stories that go along with them. Not just the recipe itself, but you know, I think of my grandmother's Green Apple Pie. Oh that she made for me that was my special thing. And so when people sit around sharing that, questions like when you go to a friend's house for like a potluck kind of dinner, what do people always want you to bring? Oh, good question. Yeah. So what's your signature dish? You know, what are you noted for? Well, chances are that's something that you serve your own family, your own family really likes that.
Janet: 10:41 They request that you make over and over. So it's kind of like, it ends up being like comfort food, that kind of thing. And so, these days when everything is just so instantaneous I can think back to helping my grandmother, uh, cut the dough for pasta on this formica table that she had grade for my table with chrome legs. I remember it like it was yesterday and so I won't be making pasta anytime soon, but that memory. Okay. Well, and I think you're hitting on something really important to when we're, when we're going in, we're interviewing our clients are the storytellers to be able to ask questions like that. That's a brilliant question. You know, maybe a about a parent or an aunt, like what was their signature dish, what did they bring or what did you help any of these relatives cook because that's tapping into the senses and we all know that, that just bind so tightly in our memory when you can, when you can feel it and you can taste it and you can smell it in your memory.
Janet: 11:47 It, it evokes something so strong and then that can lead to other things. You know, what kind of relationship did you have with your grandmother what kind of relationship did your parents have with your grandmother? So yeah, I think that's a, that's a smart thing to a smart way to guide. So that sensory awareness is a really powerful, well kind of thing. You know, if you, in writing classes, if you have someone describe a sky for example, and if you look at what you're drawn to reading yourself, if you look for certain passages, let's say the sky for example some of them will just jump out at you they go on and on and on about this guy and so it just makes you hyper aware of some of those kinds of things.
Janet: 12:43 The other thing that you mentioned is smell. Uh, one of my strongest memories is that my grandmother hung out to dry in the sun. Oh. And there is nothing better that know this smell.
Amy: There is nothing better in the world than having air dried out in the backyard drive, like sheets, pillowcases. Oh yeah. My mother used to do the same thing just occasionally and it was almost like a treat. We know it's going to smell really good. It'll be a little stiff when you put your head down on it, but smell, it's going to smell wonderful. Yeah. So those, uh, those comfort memories, uh, and sensory things are just so, so fun to remember and just a way to elicit other memories like he mentioned. Right, right. Instead of just asking about the events. Sure. Right. All right. Well I think we're, we're about running out of time here for people who want to get in touch with you, how do they find you?
Janet: 13:41 The best thing would probably be to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amy: I will put that link into the show notes. I think it's very interesting that you have been doing this for how many years? Fifteen years. Fifteen years. And several years ago you came to me asking about maybe having a website you haven't really actually needed have I haven't. I mean how many industries can you say that about? But I know it's, it's pretty remarkable. It is.
Janet: And I got all wrapped up in that website for the pet stories and then I found that I didn't really need that either. So you let that go. It's all been word of mouth and you know.
Amy: Right. Well, I still do recommend if somebody just getting into this to have a website, but it goes to show that you can start with really nothing other than something to do word processing on and to record their voice with.
Janet: 14:39 I think so and I think younger people especially dependent on a website, you're talking about the clients or to market themselves, the professionals clients when they're looking for somebody. So it's a credibility thing and I agree that's it's important to have a presence.
Amy: And yet you've had a whole career doing this without one, so. Well, take it for what it's worth. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Well, thank you for joining us.
Janet: Thank you. It was great. It was, it was a pleasure talking to you.
Amy: It's always fun to talk to you and I'm sure we'll be getting together for coffee soon. Okay, sounds great. Thank you. Bye. Bye.