“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening FOR them is something more acute than listening TO them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”
– Eudora Welty (short story writer)
Who has the stories, and why are they important?
Listening to others and capturing their Life Stories with video has been a passion of mine for a long time. My main career has been as an accountant. A company controller for most of those years, partner in a CPA firm for several years, and as a self-employed business consultant for the remainder I began shifting focus in 2005.
It began when I discovered the value of preserving Life Stories for people.
As far back as I can remember stories have fascinated me. Babysitters would sometimes become frustrated when I would ask them to tell me a story at bedtime. “I don’t know any stories” they would sometimes say. I would ask them just to “make one up.”
In high school there was a teacher whom I would visit at his home, and we would just sit and talk. He was near retirement at that time and had the most wonderful stories of growing up on a farm and eventually becoming a teacher. His inclination to tell the stories and my wanting to listen made for a beautiful time together.
In 1940, when my mother was in high school, the students had formed several informal social groups. There were groups composed of boys with names like “The Spark Plugs” and “The River Rats”. The girls had their groups with names like “The Fluffy Ducks” and “The High Hats”. My mother’s group was called “The Woo Woos” (how they got that name is a story for another day) and there were eight girls who were members. They were close friends who had known each other since junior high school and, as you can imagine, formed very strong bonds over the years through shared experiences.
Their friendship and closeness did not end with high school. They remained close friends until their deaths, and all of us children of the Woo Woos grew up together almost as cousins. In 2000, all eight of the Woo Woos were in town and phoned me one afternoon asking if I would bring my video camera over to my mother’s house. They wanted to sit around a big table and tell stories together of their growing up almost as sisters, marriages, raising families, and growing older. I was able to record the entire session and presented each one with a VHS tape… the technology of the day.
In 2005, the Woo Woos did the same thing almost as a “sequel”. Later, after I had done the editing and created DVDs for each of them, one of the ladies who was in her 80s then, thanked me with tears in her eyes. She said “Thank you for doing this. At our age all we have are memories”. That was the moment when I realized the power of preserving memories as stories using video. I felt rewarded by what it meant to them and their families to have these stories not only for today, but for generations to come. This is when my focus began shifting from accounting to storytelling.
Since then I have interviewed over 250 people preserving their Life Stories in much the same way as I did for “The Woo Woos”. The methods of preservation have become more elaborate, to be sure, by using multiple cameras, microphones and recording devices, photographs, music, old family films, etc. to help tell a story. The audience? The family members and friends who are alive today, and the descendants who have not yet been born.
During interviews there are the beautiful moments such as a daughter bonding with her father as she asks him questions about his World War 2 experience, a centenarian talking about the realities of aging with a positive attitude and dignity, soldiers talking about their war experiences in ways that they never have before, a woman who tells her family how much they mean to her, residents of a former Italian neighborhood recall the “old days” of growing up Italian, and people in their 90s and 100s telling of memories of grandparents.
There are surprise moments like when a 90 year old person gets off topic and talks about not having brushed teeth since age 14, a young bride using “naughty words” without first knowing their meaning, and soldiers talking about events of death happening right next to them.
Ken Burns, the American film documentarian, once said something similar to “Good stories accrue with time”.
His statement points to two truths for me.
Sometimes the best stories are long, so never apologize for length, and
as time moves forward these stories gradually move into the realm of history, recalling personal times for people who were not alive in those days.
Successful storytelling is a two-way street… one person tells the story and another person listens to it. Listening is a skill that has largely gotten away from us these days. Oral history filled the role of storyteller/listener long before languages were written. Wisdom and knowledge were passed from generation to generation by telling the stories… and by someone listening and learning from what was being said.
In today’s fast-paced world so many stories can easily become forgotten in a short time and, maybe ironically, it makes sense to use today’s available technology for story preservation.
Even though the technology itself is new to capturing and preserving stories, the method and technique hasn’t changed of recognizing a story, stirring someone’s memory to recall events, and of asking good questions that produce the best story possible. This is what the course “Honoring Memories… how to capture life stories with a Smartphone” is all about.
During the course you will learn about how to use available technology to capture and preserve stories. This won’t be difficult… after all, we will basically be using a Smartphone. More importantly, you will learn how to recognize a story, how to prepare to interview someone, how to effectively stir their memory to produce a great story, and how to edit the video to tell their story in an authentic way using creativity and style. These techniques will set you apart from others who preserve Life Stories, and certainly from those who miss the stories altogether.
How to Capture Life Memories with a Smartphone