The art and technique of eliciting stories from others
Another long break. I’m back. (I think.) You know, I talk here of recording family histories, or family stories, but since April I’ve been in a slightly different mode: family medical history. It’s not from long ago; it’s current. And, depending on events (which included nearly 3 weeks of hospitalization or skilled nursing facility-ization), I find myself leaving the land of so-called normal to a different mindset– the health care time-space continuum. That place is highly absorbing, but it’s nothing I wish to talk about here. Hence the silence. (But the patient is home again, which is a nice improvement.)
I suppose if I were to relate it to the topic at hand—recording and preserving family stories—I have two things to say:
Though I have been around family members quite a bit, I find myself with zero interest in doing any interviewing. (well, one channel of my lovely stereo microphone went kaput and I haven’t had the energy or the inclination to even begin troubleshooting it beyond confirming that yes, there’s no incoming signal from the one mic.) No interest. None. Was this helped by the fact that I’ve already conducted some interviews of the family member? Probably. Though there are questions I’d still like to ask, stories I want to hear.
The Pros in the Oral History biz toss ...Read More
Photo albums are a thing of beauty. I got to witness an oral history interview about a photo album on my Christmas holiday travels. I was the silent third party, operating the equipment, and asking the occasional question to pull out a few more details. Son brings Father a photo album, put together by Son’s Mother. The album was discovered after Mother’s death. It covers the time in Mother’s and Father’s early life together, before the kids were born, and before the Mother and Father’s divorce. Father is the only one alive who can describe what’s going on in the photos. Here are a few observations I made about interviewing with photo albums.
Photos are a fabulous memory trigger. When sparking a conversation about someone’s recollections, how do you get to the well of memories inside a person’s mind? Questions may trigger… they are words to tap that well, but that recollection-well still resides inside the person’s mind. Pictures are external triggers. They bring back the memories for the interviewee. Plus, being external, the interviewer can make his or her own observations about what’s in the picture, and use them to elicit more information. “Tell me about the car” or “Look at the uniform you wore! When did you get that uniform?” or “Whose house is that?”
Interviewing over photo albums For The Record. It’s wholly ...Read More
Daria tells about her first interview experience. She found this website, learned about (and then bought) a Zoom H2 Handy recorder, and told me how it worked out. I asked her some more questions. She answered them. Read all about it.
“Yearning,” she called it. Yearning. Her word leapt at me with all the force of being the right, true, word describing what’s within me. Her story: An experienced oral history interviewer visits a distant family member and is very quickly drawn into a story of trauma, of holocaust, of fractured families. The Q & A brought forth uncanny connections between her story, and other stories of fracturing, family, holocaust and slavery.
The panel at the Oral History Association conference in Oakland was called Community and Individual Memory. One presentation, about how the City of Fremont celebrated its 50th anniversary, is worth its own short post. This post is about a presentation by Rina Benmayor, on yearning and family interviewing.
Benmayor is one of the founders and directors of the CSUMB Oral History and Community Memory Institute and Archive. She’s an experienced oral history interviewer. In her presentation, she describes how, after doing some family research, she went to northern Greece to visit a relative (grandmother’s cousin*), whom she calls “Duka.” They had not met before. Benmayor brought her ...Read More
Audio gadgets, workflows, meeting people, and stories. PodcampSoCal was a good day yesterday. I was expecting to have different breakout regions in the room, but we all followed a single track together as one room. I saw several Zoom Handy H2s set up on small tripods, recording the proceedings. And one or two Zoom H4, too. Looks like I’ll be turning from The War and what’s your story to an audio geek gadget maven for the next day or so. The agenda was full and continuous I didn’t get a chance to ask people what their experience was like using their various recorders. But I’ll be at the show Friday and Saturday, so I hope to do that then.
Oh, and family stories did come up; I managed to get myself on the agenda at day’s end and spoke of the Veterans History Project. One guy, Dan Bach (he produces a math show and wore a tee shirt filled with lovely graphic symbolic goodness related to prime numbers), mentioned his dad during the Q & A: A WWII vet, a prisoner of war who received his purple heart 60-some years later. Perhaps I heard about him in the news? Just looked it up, and here’s the story of Leo Bach. He was at Pearl Harbor the day it was bombed, and he was shot down over Germany. I told him, you gotta interview your dad; this field kit has your name on it (I only had a handful of Veteran History Project field ...Read More
Larry Lehmer talks about Liars. Or stretchers of truths. Fabulists (not to be confused with fabulous, or its shorter cousin, faboo). His post points to a faboo post about a fibbing Mom. Ann Hagman Cardinal tells her uncle a story her Mom had told her, and he –with other family members present – tells her the truth. That conversation sets her on her path as writer and storyteller.
I just stared at him, heat rising from my chest to my face.
Finally I sputtered, “What? Mom made it all up?” I began to recount the other stories she had told me. One after another, they were confirmed to be fiction. I was furious. Beyond furious. How could my mother feed me these lies year after year? And I believed her! I could just see her talking to me over her shoulder in the VW van, her self-righteous lecture about not telling stories ringing in my ears.
I stared at my half eaten lunch, tears gathering in my eyes. My cousin Jose Luis took my hand and said, “Annie, what does it matter if the stories are true or not? Isn’t our family as defined by the stories that aren’t true ...Read More
I want the post of my Dad’s story to stand on its own, and reflect on the interview process, here, separately. The thought which looms so large over any other: An interview is probably the single most concentrated way to bring out a ton of “I never knew that” revelations. Especially if the interviewee is a parent. It’s one surprise after another about a person whom I’ve known all my life.
I suppose if I were to look at it statistically, the concentration of surprises per time spent would be pretty dense. In a 2.5 hour conversation, I heard, oh, 8 to 10 “wow!” things. So that comes out to 1 shocker per 15 minutes of interview. YMMV. (My shocker ratio could be way off; when I transcribed the portion I included in the last post, I didn’t listen to the entire interview, so my “Total Surprises = N” count is not accurate.) There were several snippets from Dad’s youth—a protracted illness, stories of learning Morse code and learning to use firearms, swimming in high school and mathematical prowess in the Navy—those were there all along, but didn’t come up in the day-to-day ...Read More
I got to try out the Belkin TuneTalk stereo microphone for the iPod video (and 2nd generation iPod Nano) at BarcampLA3 this last weekend. If you have an iPod video, then seriously consider getting this $70 microphone for recording interviews.
Older iPods (starting from 3rd Generation) include the ability to record Voice Memos, with a separate microphone attachment. The recording quality, though, was crappy—the same as what you hear on the phone. With the Video iPod, the Voice Memo recording ability got highly revamped from crappy to good. (Crappy = 8 kHz mono—phone call; good = Stereo CD quality: 16 bit 44.1kHz).
Voice memos are pretty easy to record, so you get portability and ease of use with high quality audio. The audio files are stored in WAV (uncompressed audio) files. Perfect.
The mics are omnidirectional, so they’ll pick up everything in the room with you, so a quiet recording location is important. I managed ...Read More
I interviewed my dad last weekend. Interviewing is listening. Listening takes energy. I’ve learned that I need to consider my own energy level – and the energy level of the interviewee when I plan and do the interview. Afterwards, I’m pooped, especially if an interview comes in context of a family visit, which includes travel, setting up, interview, socializing, travel home.
I ran across two “listening” thoughts recently.
Listening is a lost art. “People aren’t really listening, they waiting for their turn to talk. Or they’re formulating their talking points while someone else is talking.” Oral history is a cure for this. Or, if not a cure, a way to discover and battle those (”Well—” and “But—”) tendencies within yourself. One upside: You get to choose the topic that the other person talks about. Which, depending on the chit-chat tendencies of the person you’re interviewing, can be A Very Good Thing.
You don’t learn very much when you yourself are talking. That was one person’s highlight from a podcast interview held with Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, The context was business, but this came from ...Read More
Recording family stories: Which is better, audio or video? This question came up last week at the L.A. Podcasters meetup while talking to a podcaster (Karen “KFC” Blanchette, aka Podchick) about this site’s topic–recording and preserving family memories.
She asked me, “Why not video?”
I’ve been asked that before.
I talked about the barrier that video imposes—how things need to look good. The interviewee has to make him or herself presentable, and the environment also has to look good. I said, “The last couple of family members I interviewed, it would have been much harder to do on video. One was in a room that wasn’t photogenic at all, and when I interviewed my great aunt, she wore her robe and sat on the couch. I don’t think that she’d have let me videotape her wearing a robe. My boyfriend’s mother, who’d had cancer and lost hair from chemotherapy, always said, ‘Don’t take my picture!’ so there’s no way she would have talked on ...Read More
Questions! We get questions. Today, I got a question that went something like this: “Do you know of a resource for interviews? I’m going to interview my parents.” For interviewing tips, be sure to check out the Interview category of posts here. There are a ton, there.
The question also tells me that it’s getting time to do a redesign to make things easier to find here. Any thoughts or suggestions you have about the site, please chime in at the comments. Thanks!
UPDATE: Got a good comment to this post: where to find a list of qusetions? Best and quickest place, hands down, is the StoryCorps question generator.
Oral History Top Ten: It’s a list of interviewing tips, learned from experience. Here are two faves, go there to read ‘em all
Don’t wait for two months before listening to your interview, even if it is over 2 hours long. There may be some good stuff in there you want to use!
Two months?? How about two years!? I assume that doing an interview with a family member is far less formal than an interview as a public historian. But I’ve BTDT w/ a family interview. There’s a fleeting moment, during the interview, when I think, “Oh, I’d like to know more about that subject” and even before I write down a cryptic note to follow up on it, the person launches into another area, and then I’m taken elsewhere. Fortunately, while listening later, I remember the follow up topic. So, well, it behooves me to listen to the ...Read More
This account by a woman who goes by Woldoog describes what she learned after asking her Vietnam Vet father what happened to him.
He shared with me truths about war that no father is anxious to share with his daughter – truths about existing in a state of sustained fear, the horror of invoking death, what a person is capable of doing in order to preserve one’s life and the lives of others – all truths that set the course of his life, and mine, forever.
As far as I know, Woldoog didn’t record the conversation. It was a talk that happened over a couple of log days. And a powerful one at that. Go and read it all.
But it makes me wonder about the tough conversations within families. Tough to get started, the ones that begin with uphill battles of soul, where the unspoken rules—the ones that say “We don’t talk about that”—are finally overcome by that long awaited question that finally (finally!) tumbles out. The “What happened?” question.
I asked my Grandpa that question. They were questions about how family members died. His two oldest boys: drowned. Before my Mom was born. And a conversation about how my grandmother died. It was a ...Read More
Have you conducted some form of oral history with one or more person in your family? What was it like? What did you learn? What would you like to know? What are the “stuck points” that prevent you from doing so? Did you overcome them? How? Now that you’ve done it, how do you feel about it?
Storycorps has an online tool to generate questions for an interview. “You’ll start by writing your own questions, then we’ll suggest questions that, in our experience, have led to great interviews.” I didn’t try this for my interview with my Mom yesterday (just over 3 hours in two sessions. Which is a lot!). But maybe I will for a future interview. By the way, the StoryCorps web site doesn’t keep the questions; it emails them to you. You may also print them off of the web site. They come in two forms: Remembering someone (i.e., Mom, tell me about your Mom, my Grandma), and questions to elicit descriptions about his/her own life.