You as History
Interview someone in your family (preferably a grandparent or someone older) or someone who is important to you. Ask them a range of questions, asking them about their family history and their personal stories. After your interview, write a 2 page typed (double-spaced 12 point font) paper placing your family story or a particular story in its historical context. Try to think about what historical forces or social structures were impacting the story/stories you have chosen to highlight.
- Ask the big life questions. Facts are much less interesting than questions regarding love, life challenges, influences and regret. Some key questions to ask: Who is the person who has been kindest to you in your life? What do you feel most grateful for? What is your happiest memory? What are you proudest of? Can you remember a time when you’ve felt alone? If you were to die suddenly this evening, what would you most regret having not told someone? “The best stories come from asking open-ended questions,” says Isay. “For StoryCorps, the thing you don’t want to do is recite your CV. We want the aspects of a person that can’t be written down easily, that haven’t been said before. The big life questions are the best.”
- Pour your attention into the interview. “The most important things about listening is to be very present,” says Isay. “To have all your devices off, and to genuinely connect and actively listen to whoever it is you’re talking to. When I used to do radio interviews, I’d sit forward, and it was almost like a laser beam between me and the person I was talking to. It was often very intense, present, active, concentrated listening. It is counterintuitive, but it should feel draining to you. At the end of the 40 minutes, as the person doing the listening, you should be more tired than the person doing the talking.”
- Be an active participant in the conversation. Just because you’re listening, doesn’t mean you can’t engage. “Active listening doesn’t stop you from participating in the conversation. You can laugh, cry and ask follow-up questions. But what you’re not doing is bringing it back to yourself. Be generous. Try not to think about your kids or what movie you’re going to see that night.”
- Remember it’s not the “story” that matters. “When you’re doing a StoryCorps interview, you are creating a sense of who a human being is. You are capturing your interaction with them and who they are as a person. The “truth” of a story is maybe more important than the drama of a story. It is the interview experience itself that matters.”
- Say thank you. Conducting a StoryCorps interview is simultaneously about giving the gift of listening, and being grateful for being entrusted with the gift of a person’s story. Isay notes that, during an interview, a person’s back will literally straighten as they talk, and that you’ll notice your own perspective shifting as they speak. And that’s why a heartfelt thank you is vital at the end. Ultimately, StoryCorps is about recognizing that each life matters “equally and infinitely.” Says Isay: “We’re always grateful.”
Great Questions for Anyone
- Who has been the most important person in your life? Can you tell me about him or her?
- What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?
- Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?
- Who has been the kindest to you in your life?
- What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?
- What is your earliest memory?
- What is your favorite memory of me?
- Are there any funny stories your family tells about you that come to mind?
- Are there any funny stories or memories or characters from your life that you want to tell me about?
- What are you proudest of?
- When in life have you felt most alone?
- If you could hold on to one memory from your life forever, what would that be?
- How has your life been different than what you’d imagined?
- How would you like to be remembered?
- Do you have any regrets?
- What does your future hold?
- What are your hopes for what the future holds for me? For my children?
- If this was to be our very last conversation, is there anything you’d want to say to me
- For your great great grandchildren listening to this years from now: is there any wisdom you’d want to pass on to them? What would you want them to know?
- Is there anything that you’ve never told me but want to tell me now?
- Is there something about me that you’ve always wanted to know but have never asked?
- Where did you grow up?
- What was your childhood like?
- Who were your favorite relatives?
- Do you remember any of the stories they used to tell you?
- How did you and grandma/grandpa meet?
- What was my mom/dad like growing up?
- Do you remember any songs that you used to sing to her/him? Can you sing them now?
- Was she/he well-behaved?
- What is the worst thing she/he ever did?
- What were your parents like?
- What were your grandparents like?
- How would you like to be remembered?
- Are you proud of me?