How do I do the best job of recording the story of my parents lives?
August 5, 2009 1:39 PM   Subscribe

I want to record my parents telling the story of their lives. I would love to hear tips, pointers, guides, resources or your experiences of doing the same thing - anything which might help me do as good a job as possible would be appreciated.

I get along brilliantly with my parents. They are retired and I would love to spend some time with them recording them talking about their lives. I have a dictaphone but no plan. I would like to hear peoples answers to the following questions and any other information you think I should know.

Should I interview them seperately and together?
How do I structure the interviews?
How do I help to jog their memories?
Any other advice you think I would benefit from.

I know that most of the answers could be conditional on what kind of people they are but just give me general advice I can adapt it.

p.s. I do not intend to write the story of their lives but I want to record as much detail and as many stories as possible.
posted by therubettes to Human Relations (15 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Story Corps would be a good place for you to get started. Good luck!
posted by Sara Anne at 1:41 PM on August 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have done a little bit of this over the decades. My own purpose has been to carry pieces of family history forward through the generations to anyone who might want them (and hopefully someone does).

I would suggest doing it:
1) Late at night when things are quiet BUT before they get sleepy.
2) In a dim room to help the imagination and memory.
3) One at a time with the other out of the house or doing something else entirely; this allows one person to express themselves better in regard to problematic people, relatives, or situations from the past.
4) If possible, use a microphone jack and lapel microphone as the sound will be vastly better than an integrated ambient mike.
5) Burn it to multiple formats (CD, DVD, MP3) and store some backup copies away from your house with trusted relatives so there will always be a copy around.
posted by crapmatic at 1:49 PM on August 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

clarifying: so there will always be a copy around if you have a house fire, a burglary, or other unforeseen loss.
posted by crapmatic at 1:51 PM on August 5, 2009

If you want detail, you should interview them separately. Stories about the past will be richer if your parents don't devolve into the patterned way they have of answering questions when they are together.

If I were doing this, I'd structure the questions chronologically and spend some time dredging through my own memories for anecdotes that might "jog their memories." The responses won't stick to chronology, but you'll have an easier time doing something with the answers.

Sounds like fun!

(on preview, Crapmatic, wouldn't you think first thing in the morning over coffee would be better? Maybe that's just my family.)
posted by Mr. Yuck at 1:57 PM on August 5, 2009

StoryCorps' National Day of Listening has step by step directions - best popular oral history instructions, ever.
posted by RajahKing at 1:59 PM on August 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Found here a few years ago: Legacy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Personal History helped me enormously.
posted by idb at 2:03 PM on August 5, 2009

Also consider investing in a transcription. We did this with the oral history tapes we have from my [now deceased] grandmother and it's really need to get to idly thumb through it from time to time, plus it is a good conversation starter with my mom (her daughter) and you can add photos and other stuff as well.

When they did a regional oral history thing here in one of the small towns, they had some very open ended questions that were a little specific, so they'd ask "what did you do for fun after school?" instead of "what was your childhood like?"

With my grandmother's stuff, it was especially interesting to hear about relatives who were old already when she was a little girl, people we'd otherwise have almost no information about other than their names and maybe a photograph or two. Ask them to spell names for you in case it's hard to make out who they are talking about.

Keep a notebook of your own to go over topics that you've already talked about. You can arrange the stories after the fact in a way that might be more timeline-accurate without having to be like "So you were talking about 1944...." If there's something you want to get back to you can also note that down there. "Tell me more about the baseball field that used to be behind the church"
posted by jessamyn at 2:03 PM on August 5, 2009

Are there any young grandkids? If you could have them informally ask some spontaneous questions with the tape running, you might get some priceless stuff.
posted by longsleeves at 2:05 PM on August 5, 2009

Best answer: I do a lot of interviewing. Here's my advice:

Interview them separately first, then together another day.

1. Ask one open-ended question: "what was your childhood like?" Then watch them with active listening skills- eye contact, letting your eyes light up with their jokes, smiling, nodding. But don't make any sounds (don't interrupt them or laugh out loud or say anything). Let them talk as long as they want. When you think they're done talking, wait longer with a neutral-interested expression. People often say one more really interesting thing after a pause.

2. If you need to prompt, you can say more open-ended stuff but with more specific subjects inserted. "Tell me about Grandma." "What was grade school like?" "When you were a kid thinking of your adult life, what did you imagine?" "Were you ever really embarrassed as a kid?" "What were your favourite foods growing up?" "What did you and your friends do outside of school?" "Did you ever get caught being bad?"

3. Try asking them both the same question, but seperately. Then you can intercut the answers later if you want to produce this some time. "What did you think the first time you saw each other?" "What was the toughest time in our family life?" "What would you say have been the best years so far?" "What do you love most about Mom?"

4. If you think you might produce this later, you could also ask things like "what kind of music did you like at X point in your life?" and then intercut snippets of the music they liked.

5. Don't blow your wad before the tape is rolling. If you and your folks talk about a certain story before you tape it, the taped version will be dry because they'll have expended all the emotional freshness in the first telling. Your siblings or family friends can talk to them a little about that stuff beforehand, but the interviewer shouldn't. This is why talk-show hosts often don't even greet the guest until they guest walks onto set with the cameras rolling- it keeps things fresher.

6. Props can help. Maybe going through some old photos with tape rolling might prompt stories. "Mom can you describe this picture? What was going on here?"

7. Don't be afraid to ask questions about yourself. "What kind of kid was I?" "How did you think I'd grow up?" "What kind of person am I now?" It feels narcissistic but I bet some of the answers will stick with you forever.

8. It might be fun to also tape some everyday conversation- maybe a dinner or keep tape rolling when they answer the phone or something.

9. Don't be afraid of pauses. They can be edited out, but they often add real depth to the material. Make sure your parents know that tape is cheap and you have a million tapes; and that it's ok if they pause or stumble or babble or whatever- there's no pressure to be a good storyteller.

This is a great idea- good luck!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 2:08 PM on August 5, 2009 [4 favorites]

There were some good answers when I asked a similar question a while back. One thing I learned in practice is that a good way to view the project is not as a one or two shot deal, but (at least with my parents) a little bit every time I see them. If you've lived a long time, you have a lot of interesting stories, and stories can beget more questions, and more stories. So make is more of a practice than an event. You will also surely get better at it the more you can do it.

Also, these days you do not have to limit yourself to just when you are with them in person. I have done some interviews via video skype, and that's an interesting approach that may even have some additional resonance as time marches on.

Best of luck - it's a rewarding pursuit for everyone.
posted by extrabox at 2:35 PM on August 5, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for all the answers so far. Some really interesting and useful suggestions - exactly the kind of things I was hoping for. Just spoke to the folks on the phone this evening and they are both up for it! Keep the answers coming. Thanks.
posted by therubettes at 2:53 PM on August 5, 2009

Wow--I wish I had this advice before I interviewed my parents a few months ago. It seems I've done a good number of things wrong, including talk too much myself and interview my parents together--but I'll take extrabox's words to heart and know that I can keep interviewing them in lots of different ways from here.

That said, I am glad I interviewed my parents together, at least those two times. I recorded the interviews on QuickTime. Recording them together did two things I really appreciate: 1) it captured the way they relate to and interact with each other, including jockeying for story-telling position and laughing a lot, and 2) it recorded some of the daily habits of their lives in a cool way. At one point, my mom got up and made tea (as she is wont to do); at another, my father went to the candy drawer, grabbed a back of Hershey's Kisses, started to eat them, offered me some, and then panicked when he realized we might be messing up the sound (most of which he is wont to do). If you listen closely to the audio file, you can hear all of this. I'm grateful for it.
posted by pittsburgher at 12:05 AM on August 6, 2009

Making an audio documentary of someone is a lot like taking a good portrait -- you want to showcase someone at their most authentic self.

So start out with softball questions to get them comfortable. Something really easy, to get them warmed up and comfortable. Move onto the difficult or compelling questions later.

When they get a sparkle in their eyes or get really excited about a certain area, go with it and encourage them. Use gestures instead of saying anything like 'uh huh', etc. You will get really sick of hearing your own voice. Try to stay out of the way as much as possible.

I started doing this with my grandma. She wanted me to record her but she didn't want to know I was doing it. I'm not sure why but that's how she was comfortable with it. So I would go over for visits, as I usually did, but sometimes I would bring my recorder and be sneaky about it. That's the way she wanted it. It's still a work in progress and now that I'm on the other side of the world I'll have to figure out another way of doing it.

But do it. It's really worthwhile. You might also want to get a device to record onto your phone as well. Record as much as possible and then have fun with the editing.

Learn to use Adobe Audition or Audacity or some other program where you can layer sounds. Put something quiet and instrumental in the background, and maybe splice the material with other audio clips of stuff - is also a great site for old material that might be relevant.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 1:38 AM on August 6, 2009

It might be useful to read Maus - an emotional (and extreme) depiction of the psychological journey both parent and child go through during this process.
posted by Conductor71 at 10:34 AM on August 6, 2009

Since the conversation is occasionally glancing on the eventual presentation of these recordings, I'll mention that American indie-rock brother-and-sister team the Fiery Furnaces recorded hours of their grandmother's stories and set them to odd, creative pop soundscapes. The album that resulted is called Rehearsing My Choir, and even if the music isn't to your taste, perhaps the way they managed to draw entire narratives out of their grandmother will serve as some inspiration.

This is a great idea, too, and something I should really consider someday. Your enthusiasm is catchy. Thank you!
posted by tapesonthefloor at 2:41 PM on August 6, 2009

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