I first started recording life stories with my father. My dad has always been generous with sharing stories of his life growing up in a small town in the South. And in all honesty, when we were younger, my brother and I used to roll our eyes as our dad would launch into another story. But we recognized that his stories held valuable life lessons, and as he approached his 75th birthday, we realized that we didn’t want to lose the details of his experiences. So we sat with him for several hours, and just asked him to start at the beginning.
I compiled his stories into a book and shared it with our family, and the response was amazing. I soon had friends asking to take a peek at the book, asking if I could do this for their families.
You have a Master’s degree from Harvard and a PhD from UC Berkeley–what brought you from the world of academia to storytelling?
At the time of my father’s book, I was on the faculty at U.C. Berkeley. My research was what we call “qualitative,” meaning that I used interviews to conduct research, much like a journalist. So I already had over a decade of experience conducting interviews and writing books. And while I was enjoying a successful career in academia, I had lost my passion for the work and I knew I needed to make a change.
It didn’t hurt that I was having a wonderful response to my initial Life and Couple Stories – 11stories was really grown through word of mouth, as friends requested books for wedding and birthday presents.
I started 11stories the same year my daughter was born, and in many ways the business has been like my second child. Now that Embley is almost five years old, I’ve settled in to a good balance of work and family life, but there were definitely some struggles in the “toddler” years! And she loves books herself and thinks it’s pretty fabulous that her mom makes books!
Where did the name “11stories” come from?
Eleven has always been a great number for me – it’s my birthday and my anniversary. And as the Couple Stories became the signature focus of the business, I loved the symbolism of the number 11, as two ones coming together – still individuals, but stronger together.
Is there any story in particular that you’ve heard that stands out in your mind?
I know it’s a cliché, but I truly believe that everyone has an interesting story to share. And no joke, there is a point in every interview where I get goose bumps or tear up (I’m a bit of a softie!)
One of the first Couple Stories I did was for an anniversary book – a true Romeo and Juliet tale. The couple came from two very different backgrounds and religions, and their parents strongly disapproved of their relationship. They dated in secret for years before finally getting the courage to “come out” to their families. They were celebrating five years of marriage when we did the book, and more importantly, they were celebrating their courage and their persistence. (the happy ending is that their families totally came around and were thrilled with the marriage!)
Many of my clients come to me through a gift – their friends and family give them a Couple Story or Life Story book to celebrate a wedding or significant birthday. So they often start the interview telling me, “oh gosh, I don’t have anything to say.” But within ten minutes, we are settled in to an incredible tale of romance, drama, and comedy. We all have so much to share, it’s just all too rare that someone takes the time to ask the questions and to listen.
And there is a surprising theme of closet space that has come up in nearly every Couple Story – when I ask “what would you change about your partner,” there is inevitably a discussion about the closet. They love each other at the core and wouldn’t change anything significant, but they’d like more room for their shoes!
What’s so important about keeping the tradition of storytelling alive?
Such a great question – I think the hardest thing for me to hear when I tell folks what I do is, “oh, I wish I had done that for my parents, grandparents, etc.” We often realize how important those stories are once it’s too late.
I see the benefit of recording stories for both the storyteller and the readers. The storytellers get the luxury of reflecting on their life and their relationship. They get that rare opportunity to giggle again at the funny times, to reflect on the hard times, and ultimately to learn something. With couples especially, they always leave saying they learned something new about their sweetie, and they are reminded of why they fell in love. I joke that recording a Couple Story is a cheaper version of therapy, and a lot more fun!
And the readers often hear untold stories and gain a different perspective on the storyteller’s experiences. It’s especially fun for adult children to hear their parents’ stories – to hear about their adventures before they had kids, and to see connections in their experiences across generations.