Musings


Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.” – Maya Angelou

Two weekends ago I flew to Kansas with my mom to attend a family wedding in Wichita. At breakfast the morning after the wedding, we sat with my mother’s sister (Aunt Jodie), and looked through old photos of my grandfather in high school. That got us to talking about his early days, starting out in business with a young family. We debated the details of a little sundries store that he purchased on Murdock St. in Wichita, and whether or not my mom had been born yet. I knew the answer because my grandfather had written a personal essay about the Depression for me for a high school history assignment in which he talked about this store. (The next day my cousin John drove me down Murdock and we wondered if this house was the store.)

But as we sat there, at breakfast, recalling Grandfather’s dry sense of humor and taciturn manner, I wished I’d had the chance to record him, or that there was some recording of his voice, telling his own story – even though I have this great six-page essay about his and the family’s trials during the Depression.

But since I can’t go back in time, here’s something I can do, and something you can do too. Next visit to Kansas, I can ask one of my Wichita cousins, with their Midwestern drawls, to read our grandfather’s essay, and I’ll record them. It won’t be the real thing, but it will go a long way. Like Maya Angelou says up top — it takes the human voice to infuse words with deeper meaning. Then I can make CD copies for my family and/or break the essay into several mp3 files and post it for them to download.

His work is done

Here’s another grandfather (not mine) who covered all the bases. Joe Shannon, of Shrewsbury, Mass., wrote an autobiography for his kids and grandkids, so they’d know what life was like for him, but he also wanted  me to record him so his family would have some stories in his own voice. Joe tells about living in England in 1939 as a teenager at the start of World War II as one of the most challenging times of his life. He also answers the curious question: “What do you call senior citizen sheep?”

To listen, click HERE.

Get out those cassette or digital recorders — if possible add a mic — find a quiet place and go!

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“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”  –Miriam Beard

Have you ever taken a trip that was so full of new experiences, sights, sounds and tastes, that you felt like you were gone a month instead of 10 days, or a week instead of a weekend? A trip where there was so much new to take in, prompting new thoughts and emotions, that the details bubbled at the surface, hoping for an outlet? But after being back in the rush of regular life a few days or maybe a week, it almost seemed like the whole adventure never happened? That’s happened to me more times than I can count.

A local photographer/family therapist and frequent traveler to Asia wanted her two girls (then aged 14 and 11) to experience some of the world outside their protected existence growing up in a Boston suburb and now the Pioneer Valley. She took them out of their private schools for five weeks in the dead of winter and they went to Nepal to live and work in an orphanage (www.ama-foundation.org) for three weeks , followed by two weeks of travel in India.

She had to push them into it – at least at first – as they had a number of fears and anxieties about the trip. Whether or not they would enjoy it in the end, she was pretty sure it would be an incredible learning experience for them – and she was right about that. But she also feared the experience might dissipate as they reentered their regular lives, blowing away like a bucket of ashes in the wind. She was right about that too.

Instead of just letting it go, though, she did something to save it. She asked us to help them record their thoughts about the experience. Now the importance of that trip – the emotions, the tastes, the lessons learned – have been saved and can be shared with family and friends. In the present, it’s a wonderful way to honor and acknowledge those special weeks spent together. In the future, it becomes a snapshot in time that can’t be recaptured.

To listen to some snippets of what they learned about Nepal, themselves and each other, click HERE.

A few weeks before Christmas we received a flyer in the mail about a local firm offering digital conversion services (Memory Magic). The quite reasonable services included conversion of reel-to-reel audio tapes. I thought, finally, here’s a way to listen to my Dad’s old tapes, now sitting on a shelf in the basement. I had rescued his Wollensak reel-to-reel recorder from the early ’60s – an inordinately heavy silver machine –and three tapes that went with it.

My father, who died five years ago, had used the recorder to practice speeches for his DuPont sales job and his Toastmasters’ class. But I also remembered he had recorded my older brother and I as kids reading passages from a book. How cool it would be to hear our little kid voices. A few years ago, my husband had tried to get the thing to work, without success, but this time, with the help of the slim instruction manual, he got it to play.

Not only did we find the sales meeting practice sessions and a humorous Toastmaster’s speech about my Dad’s life, but his recordings of my three siblings and I at sporadic holidays and birthdays spanning 1961-1967 (when I was aged 3 to 9), including cameos from my mother and grandparents.

A gift through time

In the end, we did the digital conversion ourselves, and I burned the recordings to a CD for my mother and siblings for Christmas. It wasn’t the sound of my own voice, though, or the voices of my siblings (none of which I recognized) that so moved me, but my 30-something parents’ voices and their accompanying personalities.

Though he was mostly just introducing each of us, or asking his four kids what they wanted or had received for Christmas, my Dad’s relentless humor shone through. And it was the strong, capable voice I’d heard most of my life, not the feeble voice of his later years. It was so good to have that voice back in my head. Just thinking about it chokes me up. My mother is mostlynot on the recordings, as she, no doubt, was caring for the youngest child or cleaning up, but it makes her short bits even more special.

When we first started doing our Audio Keepsakes three years ago, I admitted to a friend how great it would be to have a recording of my Mom talking about her life as a mother of four young children, or my young father expounding on his career aspirations. Here, at 31, in an awestruck “Mommy” voice brimming with emotion, was my mother describing her best Christmas ever. And my father, at 37, jazzing up even the simplest of tasks (identifying my brother and I before we each read a passage). To listen to both, click HERE).

This wasn’t everything I’d wanted, but even with so little substance, it was a lot. And it confirms for me the value of getting something. If you want advice on how to do that, check out our blog post “A story worth saving is a story worth hearing” (click HERE).

When Christmas day came, we sat in my sister’s living room — our two families and my mother — and listened to nearly 50-year-old found recordings from my family’s past. It was the best gift I could hope to get. The moral of the story? Plan ahead. Because the only way to give such a gift to your children in the future is to record yourself in the present. Now there’s a new year’s goal worth doing!

When I tell people what I do, many of them note that it must be really interesting to hear people’s life stories. In fact, it’s fascinating. With each client I get to hear funny stories, and poignant stories, and lessons learned during a lifetime of living.

As much as I enjoy connecting with my subject during the interview, though, I enjoy editing even more. Because then I can relax with their stories. During the interview, I am jazzed up – keeping my energy high to help keep their energy high – and doing a few other things in addition to listening.

I need to keep close track of the time, for instance, to make sure we get all the important questions answered. And I want my subjects to include the great stories they wrote about in their pre-interview questions. So, if I ask my subject if she ever got in trouble in school, and she forgets to tell me the story of getting suspended for two weeks in second grade, I need to prompt her to tell it as soon as I see an opening. But when? I don’t want to interrupt her when she’s on a roll. And if she goes off on a tangent, I need to bring her back. The interview is full of such prompting and redirecting.

The fun begins…
Sitting alone in front of my editing station, with my subject’s interview spread across two screens, I can finally take it all in. It’s then that I see what I have. It’s then that I get to listen closely to their responses, watching for expressions that I want to keep on screen, or a complimentary and characteristic frame of video to use as the still shot for their DVD case. It’s then that I am on the lookout for choice clips – not just stories to keep or cut, but off-hand comments I can use for an amusing outtake, or segments for an emotionally-charged ending.

Whether my subject is a bundle of energy with a storyteller’s flair, or a low-key talker with short, dry answers, my job is the same: First, to paint a picture of their life, how they became who they are, and who and what shaped them. And second, to make their story immensely watchable, if not entertaining – a story you’d enjoy seeing many times.

If the material will let me do it, I want the same things other filmmakers want: I want the audience to laugh and to cry; I want to highlight the subject’s strengths, yet offer insight on their weaknesses; I want viewers to understand something they didn’t understand before. I want them to see something in the subject’s life that they now see in their own, and perhaps learn something about themselves.

Shaping the story
OK, these are grand goals for an hour-long video from a roughly two-hour interview of a single person. But that’s why I love editing. Just like print, it’s all about what stays and what goes. With video, there are the added tools of sound and supporting images to help shape the story. Take the 76-year-old mother who is answering the question, “What has being a parent meant to you?” She says, “I have three children…who LOVE the theatre, who LOVE music, who LOVE parenting…” And then she pauses before she concludes, “…my cup runneth over,” as she starts to cry.

Add photos of her three daughters, now middle-aged parents, and music, and the love and pride of that mother just about jumps off the screen. Of course I am a sap, but of the countless times I watched that clip to get it right, there wasn’t one in which I didn’t start to cry myself. And what a great way to end her video.

In another case, it was a description of a man’s Dad teaching him to play violin as a 6-year-old boy, and then I came across a black-and-white snapshot of he and his Dad practicing violin together. As I reflected on this pairing of interview with the perfect still image, I thought how it would really add to the story to hear his youthful self practicing violin in the background. So this is what I did. I realized my subject’s grandson also plays violin, and is only a few years older than the boy in the photo. So we set up a mini-video shoot, with the grandson practicing violin in a white shirt (like the photo), focused in close, and then changed the video images to black and white. We all had fun doing it, and it was a great way to include another generation in the project. (You can find this clip on the Sample Clips page of our website.)

Editing these life stories is not only fascinating, it’s fun! And after listening to someone’s stories for a few months as their project comes together, I feel like they have become a good friend.