The family is gathered. Reminiscences are flying. We suggest you push "record."
You may think you already know everything there is to know about your sister or your father or your crazy curmudgeon of an uncle. Trust me, you don't—as you can easily discover when you get together with them this holiday. All it takes is turning on a voice recorder and asking them to talk about themselves: Drag a relative, any relative, away from the dinner table, and you'll be fascinated by what comes out.
In 2003 I founded StoryCorps, a project that helps families record their loved ones' stories on CD. Over the past four years we've logged more than 15,000 interviews in StoryCorps recording booths across the country, and I've learned that amazing stuff emerges when you stop to ask a relative about his or her life. I've heard a brother's reflections on his family members' reactions when he told them he was gay ("really good," "a bonding moment," "she cried for three weeks"); a mother's memories of what her sixth-grade classroom smelled like during the Depression (everything from Blue Waltz perfume to skunk); a father's account of a time when he was so lonely, he'd get a haircut once a week just to experience human touch. The stories are funny, sad, moving, and sweet; many are filled with "You never told me that!" moments. Yet the storytellers are ordinary people, no different from the relatives you've known all your life.
I did my first oral history interview at my home in Connecticut when I was 11 and my grandparents and two of my grandmother's sisters were visiting for Thanksgiving. I found a tape recorder lying around, set it up, started asking questions—and came away with stories about my grandmother raising her sisters after their parents died in the 1918 flu epidemic and about my grandparents meeting as teenagers and falling in love.
I was a rotten interviewer—constantly interrupting, making idiotic jokes, talking too much about myself. But in the 30 years since then, I've learned a few things about how to do an interview right.
First, pick your person. You might start with the oldest relative, or the one who's meant the most to you, or the family's biggest character. Some will jump at the chance. Others might shy away. With a little nudging and cajoling—tell them you really want to hear their story, and don't be afraid to play the posterity card—they'll likely come around.
Before you begin the interview, get comfortable with your equipment. You don't want to be distracted by technology when you're supposed to be totally focused on listening. If you can, ask someone else to operate the equipment for you so that nothing distracts from the intimacy of the conversation.
Wildly uncomfortable dining room chairs are probably not a good choice, and being in the path of family traffic will be disruptive. Instead, find the coziest, quietest spot in the house; soft surfaces—couches, pillows, rugs—are good for absorbing stray sounds. Close the door. Turn off your cell phone and unplug the landline. Make sure the TV and radio are off. Your ability to tune in completely will help the person you're interviewing open up.
No matter how well you know that person, it's a good idea to write down your questions in advance; this will help you remember what you want to talk about and keep the interview moving smoothly. Questions about memories and feelings work best: What was the happiest moment in your life? The saddest? What is your favorite memory from childhood? Would you sing the song your mother sang to you as a child? Who has been the biggest influence in your life? The kindest? What are you most proud of? What's your favorite memory of me? Is there something about you that you think nobody knows?
When you begin recording, start with the questions you most want answered. People can tire of talking after 40 minutes or so, and it's shocking how quickly that time can pass. Look your partner in the eyes—and listen. Engage. If they seem to light up at a particular topic, ask follow-up questions. Go with the flow—don't feel anchored to your question list. Nod your head to show that you're paying attention (but try not to interrupt with uh-huh's).
When people walk out of the StoryCorps recording booth, they clutch the CDs of their interview as if they were made of gold. They write in to tell us how they've played the recordings at reunions and memorial services, and how they've made copies to give to the whole family. I'm not surprised. As a public radio producer, I'm a passionate believer in the power of the spoken word. To me there's something of the soul contained in the voice. Far more than a photograph, it has, I think, the ability to capture a person's essence.
But whether you use a tape recorder or video camera—or even take down stories on paper—I'd encourage you to start now. Every single day people come up to me and say, "I had been meaning to interview my grandfather (or mother, or father...) for years but didn't get around to it, and now he's gone."
Soon after I did my first interview, back when I was 11, my grandmother, her sisters, and my grandfather passed away, in all-too-quick succession. At some point, I went looking for the cassette with their voices on it. I never found it. Today, at the age of 41, I've had a hand in recording thousands of interviews, but it's that one crummy recording I long to hear again. So once you've got your tape in hand, guard it with your life.
And one more thing: When you're setting up the recording area, don't forget the tissues. Often the tears start flowing the minute the recording session begins.
Dave Isay's book, Listening Is an Act of Love (The Penguin Press), available in bookstores now, is a compilation of oral histories from the StoryCorps archives.