If you feel that you really don’t have the knowledge or skill to begin interviewing a family member about their life, don’t worry. You can find a number of web sites that will give you some useful resources. One of the best that I’ve found is Public Radio’s Transom website. They have great information and reviews of various voice recorders, editing and mixing software, and tips on conducting an interview.
Another site that you might find helpful is the Vermont Folklife Center Archive which has field research guides on such topics as recording equipment, digital editing and field recording.
So you may not be Oprah but you can still get a good interview with a little practice and the right resources.
Photo by Vaguely Artistic
Memories are like summer clouds – ephemeral and soon gone. Here are five ways you can start now to preserve your special memories.
- Begin to scan and identify all of your family photos. Write a note with each photo indicating the place, date,event and who is in the picture.
- Use a digital voice recorder and begin describing your childhood. Include things such as favorite memories, places you lived, pets you loved and celebrations.
- Create a list of 30 things about yourself. Think of it as a mini autobiography. If future generations were to know 30 things about you what would they be?
- Keep a “Memory Jar”. Plan once a day to write down one favorite memory from anytime in your life and add it to the jar. After a month take out your memories, print them on good quality paper and give them to your family.
- Keep a “Gratitude Journal”. At the end of each day take time to reflect on what you are grateful for that day.
If you decide to produce a personal history of someone in your family, here are some useful tips to keep in mind.
- Get the best recorder and lavalier (clip-on) microphone you can afford. No matter how good your interview, it will be ruined if the quality of the recording is poor. Avoid mikes that are built-in the recorder. And if possible, use a headphone so that you can hear if you’re capturing the sound you need.
- Avoid having other people in the same room. This can make your subject nervous and distracted. It could make you tense as well.
- Make certain there isn’t any background noise. The playing of radios, stereos, or TVs or the sound of people cleaning the house or washing dishes can be very distracting. And if you intend to edit and transfer the interview to a CD or audiotape as a gift, you don’t want it ruined by all kinds of “racket” going on in the background.
- Relax your subject. Most people feel a little nervous when they start to be interviewed. Begin with some “small talk” about the weather or a favorite pastime. Make sure your subject is sitting in a comfortable chair and that the room is quiet and at a pleasant temperature.
- Ask easy, fact-gathering questions at the beginning. For example, “Where and when were you born?” and “How long did you live there?”. Save more emotionally charged question like, “What was the most difficult challenge you’ve faced in your life?” for later in your interview.
- Don’t get locked into your list of questions. It’s more important to listen to your subject and follow up with questions that allow them to go deeper with their responses. Don’t worry that you missed the next question on your list.
- Ask questions that begin with How, When, Where and What. These will elicit fuller answers than questions that lead to a one word Yes or No response. For example: If you ask, “Did you like your work?” The answer will likely be “Yes” or “No”. But if you asked, “What did you like most (or least) about your work?” the possible reply might be, “Well, I really liked the fact that I could work from my home and be my own boss.”
- Three good follow-up questions: “What do you mean by that?” “Can you tell me more? and “Can you give me some examples?”
- Be engaged with your subject. Look interested in their story…even if you’re not!
Photo by Jeff Cohen
If you want an introduction to writing your memoir there’s an excellent article entitled, Everyone Has a Story to Tell by Abigail Thomas on the AARP website.
This article would also be of value to life story teachers.
1. Write the way you talk. It’s your story and it should sound like you. Forget about style. Worrying about style is one of the surest ways to develop writer’s block.
2. Your story is more than places and events. Make sure you share your insights, feelings and beliefs about the people and events that you’ve encountered. This will give your life story depth and warmth.
3. Remember the details. It is the details that enrich your story. While they may seem uninteresting to you, they will most certainly be of interest to your descendants.
4. Start your story wherever you want. You don’t have to begin with your birth and then work through the years chronologically. You could begin with a key event or the most significant person in your life.
5. Don’t forget the tears and laughter. Our lives are not all sweetness and light. Leaving out the struggles, conflicts, disappointments, pratfalls and humour will create a life story with little reality or interest. Be as candid as you can without hurting or embarrassing someone.
6. Make a date with yourself. When are you the most relaxed and reflective? In the early morning, during a mid-afternoon tea break or late in the evening before bed? Pick a time that works best for you, mark it in your calendar and make a practice of using this time on a regular basis to work on your writing.
7. Put your Gremlins on hold. Our inner critics love to sabotage any new venture. So beware of the Gremlins telling you that, “No one’s interested in your story.” “Who said you could write?” “This is boring.” Tell your Gremlins to get lost and continue writing.
8. Bring historical events into your life story. References to historical events will provide your readers with a better sense of the time and place of your story.