Write Lightning is a blog from writer Deb Thompson.
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Thu, Feb 08 2007

The beauty of oral history and interviewing

The UC Davis site has a report on how Vietnam Vets are helping teach current students more about the Vietnam War. Oral histories are a beautiful way for people to pass along their experiences during historic events. Many would never just sit down and write about what they've been through, but most people can be encouraged to just sit and tell stories in a comfortable setting. Rutgers also has Oral History Archives full of memories from people who lived through the times of the Vietname War, Korean War, World War II and even the tense period of time we refer to as the Cold War.

I've had the privilege of speaking to people about their family tree history on several occasions. Very often they will freeze up at the site of a recording device and the idea of being "interviewed" as part of an official record. The first few questions will almost always bring a response that goes something like, "I don't really remember very much about it at all." But I've found that a little patience, plus a willingness to let the person meander a bit from the original question to a place where their memories are strong, will usually end up bringing a flood of ideas to the surface as you chat with them.

A lot of what we each remember best is associated with our senses. Think of how much opening a new box of crayons and catching their waxy scent evokes school memories in your own life. Encouraging these types of sensual triggers in others is key to helping them reach back into their past without peppering them with pointed questions. I recommend to anyone who interviews others for any purpose to watch and listen to Charlie Rose speak to people. He is wonderful at putting people at ease so that they can talk about what matters. They may never answer the original question he asks them, but no one will care when the interview is over. He gets his guests to remember and say things they never expected to say to anyone. And he treats them like guests—with dignity and respect and a genuine appreciation for their company, for however short a time that may be. His work is pure gold in a world where we often see interviewers practically stick a microphone up someone's left nostril as they scream questions that demand the person's most private thoughts.

posted at: 08:20 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

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