Ask. Listen. StoryCorps.

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?

StoryCorps participants in an interview booth

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.

StoryCorps Mobile Booth

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.

Mobile booth interior

Mobile booth interior

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.

Click here to make an appointment at StoryCorps and here for tips on how to ask the kinds of questions that get people talking.

“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.

9 thoughts on “Ask. Listen. StoryCorps.

  1. Again, jealous of the idea, but so grateful someone is bringing back the art of conversation. It is good to see the digital world has not completely blinded everyone to the people right beside us. Great post!

  2. I first heard of StoryCorps through an NPR story and what they do is incredibly inspiring! Since both my mother and husbands mother passed away suddenly and within the same year of each other, doing things like this have become even more important to us.

    Lately, I have been taking my ipod and setting it down on the table at family gatherings, turning on the record audio function and just record that one special moment with everyone. It is awesome and something that will be even more awesome when we can share those recordings and interviews with our future children.

    Thank you so much for sharing this article!


    • What a fantastic idea! You certainly don’t have to go to a StoryCorps booth to share stories with loved ones. An iPhone will do just fine!

  3. Very interesting – I like how you started this post.
    Also good to know that we’re recording all these wonderful experiences and information. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I love this project, perhaps intensely because all of my Adults are dead and gone, so my written work has to speak for them. When I used to commute by car, I would sometimes sit in my driveway so I could hear the end of the interviews before going inside. Riveting.

    Thanks for this post.

    • I went to hear Dave Isay speak on Wednesday night. He was marvelous. Humble and smart, a guy who believes in the work and isn’t self-important at all. And he played some fantastic audio. Kleenex stock skyrocketed.

  5. Pingback: Sunday Scraps 62 (Delayed AGAIN on account of flames) | rosiesaysblog

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