At my brother’s urging, I signed up with StoryCorps to interview my mom back in 2007. My brother interviewed Dad.
The idea of StoryCorps is to collect the stories of everyday people and save them for posterity. Here’s how they explained their vision:
StoryCorps is modeled—in spirit and in scope—after the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the 1930s, through which oral history interviews with everyday Americans across the country were recorded. These recordings remain the single most important collection of American voices gathered to date. We hope that StoryCorps will build and expand on that work, becoming a WPA for the 21st Century. (2007 website description)
Interviewing my mom was a privilege and pleasure—she’s a great storyteller, and I think we managed to capture excellent verbal snapshots of her life. We traveled back to her small town childhood during WWII, as she explained what a different world it was and how much freedom she was given to roam and explore. She talked about her dad, my grandfather, and what made their relationship so special. She told about interviewing Vivian Vance—yes, Ethel from I Love Lucy—for The Indianapolis Star.
These were great snippets to get on record. StoryCorps provided us with a CD of the interview for our own family records, and evidently they file one with the Library of Congress.
Capturing Family Stories
But the experience also inspired me to schedule more time with mom and dad in order to record more stories, just for our family. On our walk back to the car, we recalled two or three more stories—famous family stories—that would have been wonderful to have her tell. Oh well. There’s only so much you can fit into a 40-minute interview. [Edited to add that Mom has since captured many of her stories in book form, in a memoir of sorts called Hoping for Dolphins.]
Reading the vision of StoryCorps made me think about blogs and social media. I think a lot of people are preserving stories for posterity via these platforms.
Many of us are living life and then writing about it, hitting highlights and lowlights, telling vivid stories and posting them to Facebook, Instagram, or a personal website. Informally, instinctively, and without being directed by a clear goal, we’re giving to the world a collective effort not unlike StoryCorps’ initiative. We are adding to the conversation in our own way, capturing life as we know it in the 21st Century.
Living and Writing Unfolding History
If someone were to scour our sites for the stories, they would likely find hints of history or history-in-the-making. Some bloggers tell stories from their childhood—which is history—while others type out what’s transpired in the past day or so—which will one day be history.
Blogging and writing on social media differs from StoryCorps in that it’s not oral history (except for podcasters producing personal content), but it is history in everyday language by everyday people, recorded electronically and posted for all to ponder.
One day we may be astounded at the window into our world that seems so ordinary from day to day, as we sit in front of our computer terminals, diligently typing away.
We’re leaving a legacy, however lighthearted or profound it may be.
I find that fascinating and inspiring.
Recording the Stories
I was so inspired by the experience that I resolved to continue collecting family stories via audio and on paper or electronically—any way possible.
In order to collect high-quality audio of the stories, StoryCorps recommends acquiring a hand-held microphone and digital recorder, along with headphones to monitor the sound levels and quality.
It’s tempting to go overboard and borrow some high-tech equipment from church or a friend who specializes in multi-media, but I’ve used what I have. The sound quality was average in the beginning and has improved over time as handheld devices and phones offer top-notch mics.
My goal is to spend an hour with each of parent several times, until we’ve amassed a fine collection of family history, genealogy, anecdotes, tributes, and remembrances.
Here’s my plan:
- List Key Stories: I could kick myself for missing a few great family stories during our official StoryCorps interview. Before I go out to my parents’ house, I’m going to keep a running list of the “famous” ones that I want to capture. Then I can just go down the list and say, “Tell me the one about Aunt Lynn at the viewing” or “Let’s hear about great-grandma and the Chicago Fire.” These stories have been told and retold, so that’s the only prompt necessary. I’ll have Mom and Dad write some down, as well. I can keep a master checklist of those that are recorded, so that we don’t tell them over and over.
- Assemble Equipment: Before heading out, I’ll make sure I have extra batteries and the headphones to my MP3, or be sure to have a charger cored for the cell phone, so I don’t make all those plans and see them come to a screeching halt because of a dead battery. The headphones are just to check that it’s working.
- Keep Kids Occupied: Personally, I don’t mind hearing my cute kids in the background, but the recording would probably be better for posterity if I can keep them from interrupting. Besides, that would just be rude of them. Fortunately for me, my oldest daughters are old enough to babysit, so I can give them instructions to keep the youngest quiet and that should work fairly well. Maybe. Let’s hope. For people with younger kids, I suggest a little creative babysitting—maybe ask the grandparent if a neighbor could come over the keep the kids busy, or if there are two grandparents, ask if one could watch the kids as the other is interviewed.
- Additional Questions: Search for questions online, as I’m not the only one gathering stories from parents and grandparents. Using thoughtful, open-ended questions to ask curated by others arms us with lots to choose from.
- Refrain from Audible Encouragement: I’ve listened to some interviews I’ve conducted and can’t stand to hear myself saying, “Mmhm…okay…sure….ha-ha-ha-ha!” or whatever response seemed important at the time. You will enjoy this much more if you just pose the question and let the storyteller do all of the talking. Smile. Nod. Nod more if you need to. Raise your eyebrows. But I recommend refraining from lots of murmuring. Oh, and this should go without saying, but—don’t interrupt! Let the storyteller talk herself all the way to the end, and if she thinks of another story, let her have at it. Just jot it down on the master list.
- Jot Notes in a Notebook: As the storyteller is talking, he might say something that makes me think of yet another story I want to hear or a question to ask. Scribble notes, but don’t distract from the story. Look up quickly and nod again.
Complementary Story-Capturing Ideas
- Blog: I also got the idea of creating a group blog. I haven’t succeeded in setting it up so that family members can easily log in and contribute, but I’m working on it. In the meantime, at the very least, Mom and Dad can write up their stories, e-mail them to me, and I can post them on the blog. That way we have a written record of the stories, as well, and can direct extended family members to it, or we can just enjoy reviewing the stories ourselves.
- Kids’ Assignments: Involving the kids as interviewers is an interesting twist on the idea. I haven’t yet assigned this to my oldest, but I think it could be a good project for school—interviewing her grandparents and creating a written report afterwards, along with memory pages for a scrapbook.
- Skype/Zoom-Interview: I was greatly impressed with Boomama’s podcasts (I haven’t listened to Episode 3 yet, so the link takes you to Episode 2) that are created using Skype but Zoom will work just as well. I can use that technology to capturing family history and stories of the other set of grandparents overseas. For people with parents who live far away, this could be a way to expedite the story-gathering process (rather than waiting until a visit)—assuming that one’s parents (or grandparents) would be able to handle their end of the technology.
- Transcriptions: Transcribing those stories could be a good project for my tweeners’ typing practice. It’s hard work, but what a great Christmas present they could give to family members! The typed-out version of the recordings, bound together and if possible, illustrated with photocopied photographs that relate to each story. If they can’t handle that, I could do it myself (and be the one to give the marvelous gift). If you don’t mind paying for it, you could hire a high-school or college student to do the transcription part for a fee. Or use a system like Temi.com (now owned by Rev.com) or HappyScribe, which offers imperfect but fast and fairly accurate AI transcription.
- Video: Another method would be to videotape the storyteller as he or she talks. Video files can also be uploaded to HappyScribe for transcription.
As I continue with the story-gathering process, I’ll probably generate even more ideas and solutions. In the meantime, don’t lose those stories. Go to the storytellers and one way or another, collect them and preserve them. It’s part of your heritage and history.
Besides, if you’re a writer, it’s great stuff to have on hand. After all, you never know when you’ll be asked to write your memoirs, autobiography, or just want some great stuff for a novel (you didn’t hear that, Mom).
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