Every family has stories to tell. Here's how to document yours.
History, to paraphrase author and activist James Baldwin, lives within us. We are vessels for narratives derived from our collective culture, ancestors and lived experiences. And that's why it's so important to capture them. Learning the stories of those closest to us not only enables us to better understand the trajectory of their lives but also helps us make sense of our own.
Kim Hawley, the founder of Strength Through Story, learned this when she interviewed her father, Jim Scherman. The conversation started off as what she describes as a "fairly normal" exchange. But as it deepened, her father revealed he had experienced mental health challenges following the birth of Kim's older brother. "I couldn't believe it. He told me he may have had postpartum anxiety and explained that was why he had been [briefly] hospitalized."
Until that moment, she had not known that the counsel her dad had given her during her own postpartum depression was the direct result of what he had learned in the psych unit during his hospitalization. "It was," she says, "a full circle moment."
Not every family story is this cathartic, but what each anecdote holds is the potential to forge greater appreciation for and understanding of the people we love. Here's how to document your family's stories.
Begin with a brainstorm
Start by taking time to reflect on what you want to accomplish in the conversation, suggests Yowei Shaw, host and producer of NPR's Invisibilia. Are you trying to document an event or find clarity on something that's a bit of a family mystery? "Make a list," Shaw says. "And then pick the one that you're most excited to do."
Once you figure out a specific angle for your story, it's time to find the best storyteller. Who in your family is the keeper of great stories about grandma — or can fill in details about the embarrassing toast your dad made at your sister's wedding? That's the person you want to speak with.
Tackle research and logistics
The prep work you do beforehand will make your interview even stronger. This might include research on the internet or in personal archives, or background conversations with people who you may not interview but who are familiar with subjects you want to explore. Gather that information, and then draw up a list of questions to reference in your interview.
When it comes to choosing a recording device, NPR archivist Nicolette Khan says simplicity is key. "You could get really hung up on creating a perfect recording or preserving it in the perfect way, but as long as it's something that you can save, keep and share, whatever tools you have are the best tools to use."
The pre-installed recording app on your smartphone is a great option. Find a quiet space where you won't be disturbed, position the phone between you and the person you're going to interview (with the microphone pointed toward you both), and plan on a conversation that is at least 30 minutes long, so you have time to get comfortable and properly explore the topic you've chosen.
Commit to the conversation
We don't usually interact with loved ones through interviews, so the format can feel awkward. The best way to break through the tension is to start with a few warm-ups — basic fact-gathering questions such as a favorite memory from childhood — and continue with open-ended versus yes or no questions ("How was X?" or "What did Y mean to you?").
"We tend to tell the same stories over and over," Khan explains. "Digging a little deeper or asking more about what someone was sensing or feeling can bring out new memories." If your family member takes you down a rabbit hole that wasn't on your list of questions, follow it and see where it goes. You can always move questions around, take them out or circle back to them later.
Finally, take time to document sounds that add to your inquiry or simply bring joy. Your nephew's laughter or your dog's barks — press "record" on whatever makes up the soundtrack of your life.
Approach sensitive topics with care
The goal of your interview is connection, not interrogation. Give your interview subject advance notice if you're planning on broaching topics that might be uncomfortable, and let them know they can opt out of those questions if desired. If they are still open to exploration, go slow, and give them the time and space they need to open up. This includes allowing for something many of us dread: awkward pauses.
Although it isn't easy to stay quiet in moments of silence, it's worth it, Shaw says. "Something electric is happening. They are turning something over in their head, having an emotional reaction, or might be trying to access a memory they haven't thought about in decades. Don't step on the silence. That's where magic can happen."
Seize the opportunity
Kim Hawley with her father Jim Scherman in 2021. Your questions and recordings do not have to be perfect. What is most important is documenting these stories while you can.
The pandemic has been a sober reminder that time is precious. Your questions and recordings do not have to be perfect. What's most important is to remember the histories that we carry, and prioritize capturing them while we still can. Shaw had wanted to record her grandfather's story but by the time she started asking him questions, his dementia had clouded over the answers. "I was too late," she says. Take advantage of the time you have now, so you don't have regrets later.
If this story inspires you to document a family story, we'd love to hear about it. Send us a note about the experience at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The podcast portion of this story was produced by Sylvie Douglis.
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