This is my favorite family story: In November 1945, my grandfather Saraphino “Ed” Truncale was an American soldier in occupied Germany. One night he had a dream; in it he saw a beautiful pair of legs step onto a trolley car. The next day, he told his Army buddy about the dream. That afternoon, he saw my grandmother’s beautiful legs step onto the trolley, and rushed to follow her. Johanna Bimböse, a German resident of Nuremburg, wasn’t impressed by the American’s advances; she gave him a false name, and left the trolley at her girlfriend’s house so that he wouldn’t know where she lived.
My grandfather walked the blocks around the streets of her neighborhood for two weeks before he saw her again. Something about him took this time. “It was his good brown eyes,” my Oma always says.
Much of this story feels like a fairy tale to me, and there is truth in the love this story represents; a grand romance that lasted over 50 years and produced three children and seven grandchildren. But there is also much that is absent: the scars and complexities of war, and my grandmother’s painful decision to leave her family behind in Germany to join her new husband in the United States. Family stories, even stories of struggle, often focus more on the successful culmination of a journey and less on the ambivalence and complicated choices that are a part of all of our lives.
I have recorded both my grandmother and my grandfather telling the story of their meeting. My grandfather died of cancer in 1999; in 1998 I traveled home to New Jersey for what I suspected was his last Christmas. On that visit, I sat with him in my grandparents’ kitchen, in the house I’d known my whole life, and asked him to tell the story once more, this time with a cassette recorder placed on the table between us. My other questions were met with some resistance or disinterest; but this was a story he was happy to tell, and I’m grateful I have it saved in his voice.
Holidays are often times when family stories are told and retold, and for many of us, it is one of the few times during the year when we have the opportunity to collect family stories. Though it might be difficult at holiday gatherings, finding a quiet place to talk without being interrupted is critical. There are small adjustments–microphone placement, or remembering to turn off the rattling washing machine–that will radically improve the quality of your interview.
Digital video and audio recorders allow you to immediately transfer interviews to your computer to reproduce and edit–many computers now come loaded with free audio and video editing software. There are a number of excellent Web resources that can help you improve your technical skills, purchase equipment and learn the art of story gathering (see resource sidebar on this page).
If you decide to approach a someone about being interviewed, it’s important to show respect for the significance of the exchange and an awareness of the risks being taken by the interviewee in sharing stories from his or her life. “When another human being shares a personal story with you, it is a sacred exchange,” says Michelle Lanier Segbefia, folklorist and educator. “I believe the opportunity to interview people in your family and community has a profound capacity to affect feelings and growth.” Collecting stories, says Segbefia, allows families to magnify and honor trends between generations, and can heal pain.
Segbefia views interviewing as a collaborative process, one where boundaries must be explored. It’s important to communicate how the stories will be used–will they just be shared among family members? Or only certain family members? With the technology now available, Uncle Bill’s intimate thoughts could be podcast within hours of the interview. Before you interview someone is the time to make it known if you want to use the interview in an essay, edit it for radio or submit it to an archive. And almost all archives, like the Library of Congress Veterans History Project (see sidebar) require release forms in order to accept the interview.
Silence plays a large part in any interview. The most common impulse for an interviewer is to fill a quiet moment, to expand and explain a question when there is not an immediate response. The best advice I have every received about how to elicit a thoughtful answer is to silently count to 10 after I ask a question. And often, after the first burst of an answer, there is another quiet moment. Let the silence hang there, too; the next words out of the interviewee’s mouth are often more questioning, less certain, and more reflective of a life experience than the stories that have been practiced and retold.
How much to share your own feelings during an interview is another gray area to consider. If the goal of a recording is to capture a conversation between two people, that’s a distinct process from an interview where the object is to allow the interviewee to reflect on the significance of his or her own life experiences. Segbefia suggests that you “allow your family member to determine the flow of the interview. You are co-directors of the process.”
A successful interview often requires a balance of knowing what you want and being open to being surprised by what you find. “Let your family member know that ‘I’m not going to force you to talk about anything,’ but try to see if perhaps a family memory is ready to be shared,” Segbefia says. “It can be a magic moment when a hidden piece of the family puzzle is disclosed. If you and your family member can hang in there emotionally, then it’s important to allow the interview to move forward. The person who owns the story takes priority in the exchange. Honor their needs.”
There are good reasons to leave a quiet room and enter the chaos of a family gathering. You can use the presence of the ubiquitous camcorder to move beyond folks simply saying “hi” to the camera. Sometimes stories are family possessions that are as much about the reactions of the group as they are about the telling. Kitchens are natural gathering places; family recipes are their own stories. Similarly, memories are often tied to the holiday decorations that are brought out year after year; exploring the history of things is another way to evoke memories from individuals who may be resistant to a more formal interview.
After the recording device is shut off, spend time decompressing with the interviewee. Reciprocity is also important; a thank-you note or a copy of the interview recognizes both the gift of an individual’s time as well as the value of their stories.
It’s the wobbly places in interviews that hold the most promise. Information is easier to elicit than meaning; it’s simple to go back and fill in dates or clarify branches on a family tree. What’s more difficult to retrieve is the fragmented beauty of an individual gifting pieces of a life to his or her family and community. And the act of listening, of a concentrated presence to another human being, is also gift.
Dawn K. Dreyer is the Learning Outreach Director at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. In her own creative work, she explores documentary audio and writing.
Story recording resources
StoryCorps is a nonprofit organization with a revolutionary commitment to the value of “the stories of everyday Americans.” Resources developed for their StoryBooths (the first one opened in Grand Central Station, New York City, in 2003) and MobileBooths (shiny silver sound booths on wheels that have traveled to 25 towns in 16 states) are available to everyone on their Web site. Do-It-Yourself kits include a question generator, recording equipment basics and interview tips. Interviews that they collect are archived with the Library of Congress; excerpts appear on the StoryCorp Web site and every Friday on NPR’s Morning Edition.
This Web site includes information on all things audio (not just radio), including recording equipment, interviewing techniques, examples of great audio work, message boards and links to a multitude of resources. Under “Tools,” you’ll also find Shout Out! A Kid’s Guide to Recording Stories, a great way to get young people involved in the family history mix.
RADIO: AN ILLUSTRATED GUIDE
If you’re a fan of the particular style of this distinctive radio program, the This American Life Comic Book! includes interview tips, how to hold a microphone, and a how to pitch that family story (or any story) to This American Life. And it’s only $5. (Click “General Store” in the left column on the Web site.)
THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS VETERANS HISTORY PROJECT
The Veterans History Project relies on volunteers to collect and preserve narratives, letters, diaries, maps and photos from wartime service. An interview kit, memoir kit and directions on how to submit materials to the archive are all available on their Web site.
LOCAL LIBRARY ARCHIVES
Libraries are critical repositories of the people’s history. Many university, state and local libraries have archives that accept audio and video interviews as well as documents and artifacts, and the focus of collections and guidelines vary. The Durham Civil Rights Heritage Project (www.durhamcountylibrary.org/dcrhp) is a good example of an active library archive.
CENTER FOR DOCUMENTARY STUDIES AT DUKE UNIVERSITY
Offers courses (open to the public) through Duke Continuing Studies on various topics related to family history. There are also resources available on their Web site: In “Past Projects: Indivisible,” under Resources, you’ll find the downloadable guide “Putting Documentary Work to Work,” an introduction to the documentary arts. Also under “Projects: Behind the Veil” is a list of research questions devised for Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Segregated South. These questions can help you think more widely about the significance of your family member’s story from a historical perspective.
DURHAM ACADEMY NIGHTS
On Monday, Jan. 23 from 7-9 p.m., Durham Academy will offer Interviewing the Important People in Your Life: The Documentary Approach (class 606). The cost is $25, and you can register starting Jan. 4. More information is available on their Web site.
SOUTHERN ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM AT UNC-CHAPEL HILL
SOHP offers workshops on how to conduct oral histories at high schools, community centers, retirement homes, universities and libraries throughout North Carolina. SOHP asks for a modest instructor fee.