“Life itself is the most wonderful fairytale.”
—Hans Christian Andersen

I had another newsletter topic almost set to go, but then last weekend my close friends’ 16-year-old daughter Emily received a heart transplant at Children’s Hospital in Boston. They hadn’t expected it would happen so soon, but Emily’s health took a turn for the worse, sending her to the hospital, and then the planets aligned to bring her a heart. It has been less than a week, but so far she is doing great.

Emily is a wonderful young woman, whom I think of as more like a niece, and over this past week I couldn’t help but remember her at various earlier stages of her life, including taking her first breath, as I was lucky enough to be present at her birth–the official photographer.

And as I worried for Emily, I felt for the preciousness of my own two children – the funny things they say at bedtime, the odd expressions they pick up, the periodic stutter or oft-repeated poem. I wanted to hug them tightly (even as they whined) and record them how they are today, commenting on their lives in their own voices.

At Thanksgiving, I interviewed my hip nephew Jonathan about a fashion decision he’d made. He was still happy with his choice, but he’d realized that his decision had cost him the opportunity to make some new friends. It seemed a surprisingly astute observation for a 9-year-old, and it says so much about who he is today. To listen, click HERE.

But often these recordings of our children do not seem so important at first. It is only after time has passed that we realize: that child, that voice is gone; that phase has passed. And what we have saved by recording them becomes, quite simply, a treasure. I know some of you have already heard this clip of our daughter Tia singing Robert Frost’s “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening” in her now-gone-forever 5-year-old voice, but if not, or if you just need a breath of sweetness in an overburdened day, click HERE.

This year, record some stories from your children, as did this mother of her 10-year-old daughter at the StoryCorps booth in New York: “I think I might want to be straight with a nice husband, but, of course, I don’t have any idea what it’s like to have kids, ’cause I am a kid myself.”  To listen, click HERE.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy new year — full of stories.

“A story is the shortest distance between people.”
— Pat Speight

This Thanksgiving, let’s bridge that distance and remind each other we all have stories worth listening to. Dave Isay and StoryCorps – the nonprofit he founded to collect and preserve oral histories – is promoting this Friday – the day after Thanksgiving – as a “National Day of Listening.” Along with National Public Radio, StoryCorps is encouraging a new tradition: set aside an hour in the day or weekend following Thanksgiving to record a meaningful conversation with someone important to you.

With this event as the impetus, Holly and I are bringing our full recording setup (along with four pies and a casserole dish of mashed sweet potatoes) to my sister’s house for our annual Thanksgiving visit. We’re hoping to get a short story from everyone -– from my 77-year-old mother down to our 7-year-old daughter. If you need tips to record your stories on the National Day of Listening, or a complete “do-it-yourself guide,” click below: Join StoryCorps in the National Day of Listening even if you don’t have the ideal equipment setup – use what you have to get started. A video camera, cassette recorder or a digital voice recorder will work fine — and attach an external microphone if you have one.

In promotion for the event, NPR has been featuring interviews this week between its hosts and correspondents and their own family members and friends. Listen to Scott Simon ask his mother about an incident before he was born – worth it just to hear Scott’s laugh! Or Steve Inskeep asking his mother about attending college. Listen to Liane Hansen tell her son how she got started in radio. Or Renee Montagne talking to the subject of one of her first NPR reports. Other stories to come from Frank Deford, Noah Adams, Susan Stamberg and Michel Martin, among others!

Wishing you all a happy, healthy Thanksgiving — full of stories.

If stories come to you, care for them.
And learn to give them away where they are needed.
Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.

Barry Lopez, in Crow and Weasel

So much of our lives pass without reflecting about what it is that we’re going through. About the weight of it. About the great burden or gift of it. And sometimes it is a burden and a gift at the same time – like helping to take care of a sick or dying parent (see first link below). Or taking care of kids. Or starting a new career as a 40- or 50-year-old.

Do this for yourself, or do it for your kids: Start telling some stories about your life and thinking about what you’ve learned.

What’s it like to raise kids as a single parent? In spite of those hardships, what do your kids mean to you? Now that you’ve lost a parent, either to illness or death, what do you miss about them? What did they teach you? If you’ve had a brush with death yourself, how has it changed you? What do you think and see and feel differently? If you’ve battled with depression, or come through a divorce, how did you make it through? Where did you find strength, or hope? What would you like to know about your parents? If you can ask them, record it. If it’s too late, consider having your children ask those questions of you.

Below are two personal stories worth watching on the MediaStorm site, one by a filmmaker/photojournalist couple with two children, who moved to New Jersey to take care of the wife’s aging Dad, and the other by a globe-trotting photojournalist so addicted to travel that he risks losing his wife and family (warning: some graphic images of war).

These people are talented professionals and they’ve added photos and video in a format called “audio slide shows*,” but a the core it’s their candid reflections about hard times and choices in their lives that are so moving. Your stories are no less powerful, and your families no less important. What they have is the knowledge that their personal stories are worth capturing and sharing, and the will to do it – even though it is sometimes hard enough just to live it.

I encourage you to watch both stories.

“The Sandwich Generation” by Julie Winokur and Ed Kashi:
http://mediastorm.org/0009.htm

“Evidence of My Existence” by Jim Lo Scalzo:
http://mediastorm.org/0018.htm

*If you would like us to help you script and/or produce an audio slide show, please contact us for more information.

Because there is a natural storytelling urge and ability in
all human beings, even just a little nurturing of this impulse
can bring about astonishing and delightful results.

—Nancy Mellon, Storytelling and the Art of Imagination

In Part 1 of “How to get great answers” we talked about doing research before asking your questions to draw out the best answers. This month we’ll talk about how you ask your questions. Here are five tips for getting a great interview.

Tip 1: Ask essay questions, not multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank. Better than asking, “Did you like school?” or “Were you a good student?”, ask:

• What was elementary school like for you?
• What stories do you remember from high school?
• What sort of student were you?
• What did you do after school?
• How did you and your family spend your summers?

Tip 2: Like a good investigative reporter, ask follow-up questions if you sense there might be more – more detail, more emotion, more complexity. The trick is to keep the follow-up question in your head while you wait for your subject to finish answering. Don’t jump in too soon or you’ll step on their answer!

Tip 3:
Don’t be afraid of pauses. If you have asked a question and your subject does not respond right away, don’t assume you need to jump in with a reworded question or additional explanation. Sometimes the best answers will come after a long pause. We all need time to think and compose our thoughts. And there’s nothing more dramatic than a pause, followed by a moving answer.

Tip 4: Take your time. If you look at your watch a few times, your subject will notice and perhaps be distracted – or worse, annoyed, or anxious that they’re not going fast enough. And if you look more than that, you may lose them entirely – not only for this time but for anytime in the future. If circumstances demand that you have little time, plan to cover less ground and give them your full attention. And if you need to keep track of the time, position a watch or small clock where you can see it without having to move your gaze too much. (Make sure you can’t hear ticking, though!)

Tip 5:
Like a new school teacher needs to prep more than enough material for one period because he’s not sure how fast or slow the material will play out, make sure you have more than enough questions to fill the time available. We’d scheduled 20 minutes to talk to a town senior about a local flood and hurricane, but all of her recollections were captured in about 10 minutes, so we moved on to other topics. “What was elementary school like when you went to school in the town 75 years ago? How did your courtship start? What was it like being a young parent?” Just make sure you prioritize your questions so you get to the ones you’re most interested in if you do run out of time.

And beyond that, remember, it’s not rocket science. There’s no right or wrong way to conduct an interview. Just be a good listener in a quiet place and let them talk!

“Storytelling can change a room. It can change lives. It can change the world.”
— Gwenda LedBetter

This month’s issue was all set to be Part 2 of “Getting great answers,” but it got hijacked by Mother’s Day. This past Sunday I had to laugh, lounging in bed, as my children and husband came up the steps to my bedroom, bringing the traditional tray of breakfast, homemade cards and surprise trinkets. It wasn’t because they were “shushing!” each other to be quiet that I laughed; it’s because they were fighting.

My husband let our youngest, our six-year-old daughter, carry the box of trinkets, and since he wasn’t ready to let our oldest (age 10) carry the tray of omelet, bacon, fruit cup and steaming coffee up the stairs, that left only a paltry clump of cards for him to deliver – and he wasn’t happy about it.

Eldest child, sullen. Husband, aggravated. Youngest child, victorious. Happy Mother’s Day!

You might want, you might hope for the best part of them to shine through, but life happens, and every mother knows it. You know they love you. You know there are things they love doing with you – as you love doing things with them. But wouldn’t it be nice to hear about it, pure and unadulterated – just once?

A tribute to mothers

That’s why I wanted to put together a Mother’s Day tribute for my sister and for a friend – because I could. About a month before, I gave each child a list of questions to ponder about their Mom and their relationship with her, then set a day for our clandestine audio “interviews.” They told me what they loved about their Mom, and what made them proud. They told me what they loved doing with her, and what they used to do with her that they missed. They told me what she meant to them. Listening to their answers, it was hard not to cry. Thinking about their answers, it is hard not to cry now! We edited them a little, added beginning and closing music, and put a picture of all their kids on the front of the case.

Do you think the mothers cried? Do you think the kids were teary-eyed? In fact, just about everybody cried. And the look on my sister’s face as she listened to each child, eyes overflowing, was priceless. The scene at my friend’s Mother’s Day gathering, I hear, was about the same. And the great thing about it, is that this gift only gets better as time goes by, after their voices have changed and they have moved on to other things.

There’s no reason why you can’t put together such a tribute yourself – for your spouse or sister or parent or child – using your digital recorder or your video camera, and some planning. And don’t forget the Dads. You could even start a tradition of recording the kids every year (if they’d let you) – one year for Mom, the next year for Dad.

And speaking of Dad, Father’s Day is June 15. There is still time!

It is just coincidence, I guess, but in the next month I have three Audio Keepsake interviews scheduled with mothers in their 30s, each asking their mothers to talk about their lives. I am excited, the daughters are excited, and I think even the mothers are excited. This is the type of gift that takes a little planning and a little effort, but when you have the finished product in your hand, you will wonder why you didn’t do it sooner – and more often.

For some excerpts from the kids’ tributes to their Moms, click HERE.

Our business is called words pictures stories, and we help people capture and share their stories, using audio and video. Our new service, Audio Keepsakes, help people reflect on the important events and elements of their lives. Our edited memoirs help people tell the story of their lives by adding photos, home movies, memorabilia and music to their first-person narratives in a documentary-style format.

To view some video samples of our work, click HERE.

“To be a person is to have a story to tell.”
–Isak Dinesen

Some people are born great storytellers, but all people have great stories in them. Your job is to get them out. You can read whole books on this subject, but I’m going to pare it down to two keys to getting great answers: homework, and phrasing. This issue I’ll cover homework.

Homework pays off, really!

By “homework” I mean finding out ahead of time where the good stories are. Your father doesn’t have much to say about elementary school, nor the science high school he attended, but he becomes very animated and remembers lots of detail about vacationing in the Catskills, and especially about fishing. Oh my God, it’s like he caught those pickerel yesterday. You can see (and almost feel!) those fish wriggling on the stick as he walked back home.

Whether you use a list of pre-interview questions to give to your father, and see what areas seem richest, or talk ahead of time to people close to him – his spouse, his siblings or cousins, your siblings (we use both strategies for our memoirs) – you have the best chance of getting the good stuff. If there are classic stories you definitely want him to tell, or a part of his life that’s a bit of a mystery, make sure you put them on your question list and do a little sleuthing to see where a story might lie.

Some people worry that pre-interview strategies like these will kill the spontaneity of an answer. A greater probability is that you’ll miss the story altogether because you didn’t know it was there. Just because you asked about your uncle’s courtship with your aunt doesn’t mean he’s going to tell you what really happened, unless you gain some inside knowledge.

Try to know the answers ahead of time

Once I asked a husband who’d been married 49 years what his marriage proposal was like. He gave a short answer that revealed nothing unusual. Things had gone pretty much as planned. If I hadn’t heard a different story from his wife, I would never have known to press just a bit more with a follow-up question.

Well, it turns out he had to propose three times, because she just wasn’t ready, and the third time, in a little Swiss restaurant, lit by candlelight, with a violinist serenading them (he was taking no chances this time, he said!), he told her he wanted his class ring back. And then, at her crestfallen look, he handed her an engagement ring to replace it, and asked her to marry him, with the added imperative — “It’s now – or never.

“That clinched it,” he said.

There are a lot of great stories out there. Do your homework so you don’t miss them!

The focus this month is not about capturing our parents’ stories of the past, but about recognizing and saving what’s important in our lives today — our dreams and fears, our grief and gratitude. It is a curious irony that even as we lament the lack of rich records of our ancestors, we continue to ignore countless opportunities to capture our stories for the future.

One Sunday morning about a month ago, we chatted over coffee with our 40-something friend Liz, mother of two boys. We were talking about video autobiographies as we typically do them — of people in their 70s and 80s. She said what she really wished she had was some audiovisual record of her mother as a younger woman — in her 20s, 30s, or 40s. What was her mother like then?

Liz said that’s what we should offer: videos of middle-aged or younger parents talking about their lives. Well, it’s not that we don’t offer that now, I told her, but I didn’t think the sandwich generation parents who typically hire us to record their mother’s and father’s lives would see the same value in telling their own stories. And didn’t many of them have video cameras at home, and years of footage chronicling their family’s lives?
 
Yes, she said, but if her experience was the norm, “family” translated to just kids, and parents appeared mostly in supporting roles, if at all. I had to agree the same was true for us, and most of our footage centers around activity — not reflection. Would my kids learn much about me when they were older by watching these videos? Not a chance.

A world of opportunities

If I could travel back in time, I would record my Mom at 30 talking about the challenges of raising a family (three children under the age of 6 and another on the way!), or catch her as a college girl after rafting the Colorado. I’d ask my 24-year-old father just out of business school what he hoped for his new sales job with DuPont — where he worked for 30 years.

But I can’t.

What I can do is answer those questions myself today — as I turn 50 in a few months — to save for my children tomorrow. What do my children mean to me? How did I find my vocation? What was it like to lose our son Sheehan at birth? I can also start to capture, on a regular basis, the sweet voices of our children (ages 6 and 10) describing their hopes and fears, singing their songs, and offering their quirky observations about the world. Not only will this be precious for my husband and I in the years to come, but it will become a priceless gift for our children and their children.

In the weeks since that conversation, we decided to add audio stories to our business, continuing to produce video memoirs, but now also offering audio memoirs and shorter interview sessions called Audio Keepsakes. These Audio Keepsakes will focus on capturing the present and the past for all ages — parents in the days or weeks following a birth; adult siblings remembering their mother or father who has died; a parent asking their recent high school or college graduate about their hopes and dreams for the future.

To remind you of the power of voice to move and entertain (and until we have audio samples), we encourage you to check out the StoryCorps Project at http://www.storycorps.net/. One story we love listening to (and quoting from) is a funny recollection titled, “Let’s talk about Miss Divine” — several stories down on the following page http://www.storycorps.net/listen/page/13.

If the idea of capturing today’s stories for tomorrow strikes a chord within you, we encourage you to sit down and list the stories you’d like to hear in the future — and then make a plan to start capturing them.