We are so often mysteries to the people who think they know us best.
Have you ever asked your grandfather what it was like to go ashore at Normandy? Ever heard your mom’s stories about living in a Thai refugee camp? Isn’t it about time you did?
Dave Isay’s marvelous StoryCorps project (for which he won a MacArthur “genius” grant) aims to give people an excuse to sit down together, ask, and listen to each other. In mobile booths all over America, fathers and daughters, kids and grandmoms, students and teachers, and old friends take the time to hear and record each others’ stories, and they often leave profoundly changed by the experience.
StoryCorps provides a sound booth, a recording engineer, and a simple interviewer’s how-to for folks who aren’t sure how to begin. Forty minutes later, participants go home with a CD of their conversation and, quite often, a life-changing memory. Their stories become part of a great American oral history time capsule—each interview is archived at the Library of Congress. And a number of them have aired on NPR.
Over the past twelve-or-so years of doing writing and journalism, I’ve found that the interviews that affect me the most profoundly aren’t
usually ever with celebrities. People in the public eye tend to become guarded in their answers, and I can understand why they would. But sit down and ask regular folks about their lives, and you’ll often find that you are the first person who ever bothered. They’re often grateful, usually open, and nearly always relieved to finally share their stories.
I’ve had my favorite, most mind-altering conversations with ordinary people whose quiet, extraordinary wisdom I’d never have guessed: incarcerated men who decided to run a marathon in the prison yard, a kid who grew up with a chronically ill sister, former prostitutes, women with breast cancer, and longtime friends of mine who became stepmothers.
Sometimes, the conversations were with people I thought I knew fairly well. But ask the right questions, and all manner of lovely mysteries unfold.
Tonight, StoryCorps creator Dave Isay comes to Parnassus to talk about his grand listening project and read from his book featuring some of participants stories—Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from Storycorps. I’ll be there. But if you miss it, don’t miss this: StoryCorps is hosting a mobile studio at the Nashville Farmers’ Market from May 2-June 2. Make an appointment, and take your favorite person with you. Spend 40 minutes devoting your full attention to him. Ask. Listen.
“Listening is an act of love.” -Dave Isay
Interview Tips: If you can’t make it to the StoryCorps booth but would still like to ask about and/or record your dad’s/grandmom’s/second-grade teacher’s story, here are a few suggestions for how to ask great questions:
1. Don’t ask yes or no questions.
2. Don’t say simply, “Start talking about _____.”
3. Do start the conversation with a few everyday questions to get your interviewee comfortable.
4. Do ask feeling and memory-based questions that get your interviewee thinking and reaching back. Try both general and more specific questions:
What was the happiest moment of your life?
What’s your earliest memory?
Can you describe the moment you first saw America?
What was it like the first time you flew an airplane solo?
How did you feel the first time you ever saw Mom?
Most of all, don’t be bashful. Just ask. You’ll be glad you did.