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There is true power in oral history. Recently I sat with a client as we worked on writing his life story. I asked a simple question about the example his parents set for him. As he started to talk, he became emotional relaying an experience with his deceased parents. I reached out and pressed “record” on my digital recorder that was sitting between the two of us. As he shared a particularly tender story, tears streamed down his cheeks and the emotion was captured in his voice on the recorder. I felt the connection between him and his parents as he talked about they way they did things together and their example of service to him when he was a teenager. The mood he conveyed as he talked is hard to convey in written word, but now it will be recorded for generations to come to listen to and to learn from. That, my friends, is why oral history is priceless for both the sharer and the listener. Later that day as I prepared to leave I grabbed my recorder. He chuckled as he noticed me tucking it away. “I forgot you turned that on,” he said with a light laugh.
“It was good stuff, I had to record it,” was my quick reply.
“I’m glad you did,” he said with a smile.
Me too, I thought. The magic of oral history is alive and well in this day and age of immediate gratification and the video craze.
So, why do oral history? We have four simple, yet vital reasons to set a date to get started today.
1. It’s Simple
Oral history interviews don’t require fancy set-ups and backdrops. All you need is a small digital recorder or your phone and a quiet spot.
I have witnessed this magic of oral history interviewing over and over again. Often I find that turning on a video camera makes people stiffen up and get nervous. When you turn on a tiny audio recorder, the interviewee isn’t bothered by it and often even forgets it is there, allowing them to feel free with their storytelling and memories.
There is something powerful about voice. I bet any of us can think of at least one person we would give anything to hear again. I know I can. When I’m missing my grandparents, I pull out a series of oral history interviews my husband and I did with them a couple of decades ago. I immediately feel their warmth and love again. There is a realness that comes from a voice that can’t be captured in any other way. Furthermore, it is my experience that writing a life story from that voice recording holds more power that copying from journals or other sources too. Those sources are important, but there is something about a voice.
2. Oral history is the easiest, most enjoyable way to finish a life story
There is one theme we hear from clients and class participants more than any other: “How do I get my story unstuck?” Variations on this theme include: How do I start? How do I organize my project? How do I overcome procrastination? How will I ever get it done?
The simplest answer has revealed itself to us over time: life story interviewing. This process helps people articulate their stories in a way that makes it easy to write later. The act of doing interviews feels warm and rewarding, not like an obligation that needs to be crossed off the list or a burden to finish, but instead it is a rich experience that bonds the teller with listener. In many cases, we have found that people thought they needed to write their life story, which felt like an impossibly daunting undertaking. When we have guided them through a series of life story interviews, the result was enough…more than enough. Many of our clients are wonderful storytellers, but not writers. Great! This process is perfect for that.
After the interviews, audio can be transcribed, written into stories or made into videos. However, none of these additional steps are necessary. In many cases, simply recording one or more life story interviews is enough to feel good about it being done. Sure, you may have wonderful visions of a book. The reality, however, is that this may not be needed and the weight of this task might keep you from ever getting it done. Oral history breaks through all of this.
It’s also easy to engage the younger generation in this process. There are voice recording apps for their phones that are easy to use and it connects the generations in a very special way, providing not only an intergenerational connection but a spiritual one as well, because yes, there is a special feeling that seems to always appear during oral history interviews.
3. It paints a picture like nothing else
I really love these thoughts on oral history from a study conducted at Baylor University:
Oral history provides a fuller, more accurate picture of the past by augmenting the information provided by public records, statistical data, photographs, maps, letters, diaries, and other historical materials. Eyewitnesses to events contribute various viewpoints and perspectives that fill in the gaps in documented history, sometimes correcting or even contradicting the written record. Interviewers are able to ask questions left out of other records and to interview people whose stories have been untold or forgotten. At times, an interview may serve as the only source of information available about a certain place, event, or person.
This is so true! Earlier this year I interviewed an 80-year-old man and his wife to tell his life story. We did a series of six interviews that he could share with his children and grandchildren. As we started, the plan was to do just one or two interviews, to get the “bare bones” of his life. After the first interview, we had unleashed a large cavern of memories that he was eager to share. He loved telling about his hometown, his mother’s cooking and his journey to find a career he loved. As he talked he revealed parts of his past he had long-since forgotten, both happy and sad memories. Those interviews, peppered with simple questions, helped him remember his life. And now those memories will not be forgotten. They are saved in cloud storage (Dropbox), and on a flash drive. Plus, because we recorded them in 30-minute increments, they can be uploaded to Familysearch to be enjoyed for limitless time.
4. Oral history interviews jog your memory
It seems that oral history interviews jog the memory in the same type of way music does. Certain questions can take us back in time to place we love to remember or even a memory that may have seemed hard at that time but now we can see what we have learned and are able to share it. Either way, it is something priceless to capture for yourself or future generations.
I love when I ask someone about their mother’s favorite recipe. The look on the face is priceless and is usually followed by a smile and the close of the eyes as they go back to the last time they ate it. Once that memory is unraveled, many other memories of home and growing up often come up. A simple question that can yield a whole childhood of thoughts.
Often, when I start a series of interviews, I ask people to keep a notepad handy after I leave so when a memory comes to mind, they can jot it down. Starting the interview process helps people remember many more things. It’s amazing to see how jogging those thoughts brings those memories come back over a series of days and weeks.
I have found that oftentimes, talking to a stranger also opens up thoughts that talking to a family member doesn’t always unveil. Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York fame, shared this same idea. He has found that when he approaches people on the street they are willing to share personal insights with him because he is safe and holds no judgement on their responses or memories. I think in nearly every interview I have done with a couple or a child/parent has yielded the response, “I have never heard that story before,” or “I didn’t know that about you.” Listening is an attitude, and sometimes a stranger who wants to hear can make the difference in someone being willing to share.
Couple interviews are fun because the couples reveal tender feelings that often makes the other beam with happiness and often even shed tears of joy. Sharing a love story often does that.
Sometimes we think we have to wait for everything to be in order before starting our life story or that of a loved one – I’m here to say, don’t wait. Do it now and it will be enough. Something is better than nothing. Basic, simple questions can yield marvelous memories. Taking this questions one step further for greater detail can be even more magical.