Few things spur a person to action like the hollow ache of regret, the helpless longing to rewind time and take advantage of what was, in hindsight, a missed opportunity. So it was when Cynthia Hart, a product designer and artist who lives in New York, lost two friends in the same week, one to a heart attack and the other to an unexpectedly short battle with an illness.
"There's an emptiness," Hart said. "The fact that they're gone, irrevocably gone, and all they can say can be gone in an instant. And I just wanted to talk to them."
Hart began interviewing family members, friends, "for a while just about anyone who walked in front of me," she said, on a mission to learn everything she could while she still could. In December, Hart and co-author Lisa Samson published "The Oral History Workshop" (Workman, $12.95), a guide to collecting and preserving people's life stories.
Many people contemplate interviewing their loved ones. Actually doing it is another matter. The task can seem daunting, a little awkward, something to leave for next week, next month or next year.
It doesn't have to be. Here are some guidelines to making oral history easy, from the best questions to ask to the best use of technology, to build family tree or history.
Hart's advice: "Be relaxed, be kind, be open. And do it now."
Talk to everybody
People often want to interview their older relatives or someone they're afraid they're going to lose. But don't count out the younger folk. "Just imagine if you did an interview with a 10-year-old," Hart said. "Twenty years from now, that would be an incredible thing to have."
Ron Baraff, a Pittsburgh-based historian, interviewed his wife over the holidays about her relationship with her grandmother, who had died two years earlier before he could interview her personally.
Baraff also has interviewed his sister about her life in a Tennessee commune, where she went after running away from home as a teen.
"I had never really gotten the story about what happened," said Baraff, 46.
Assess the comfort level
If you plan to broach touchy subjects, make sure beforehand that your subject is comfortable discussing them, Baraff said. "Emotional tipping points" can cause your subject to break down or shut down, he said.
Also, assess the best environment to keep your interviewee relaxed.
Savannah Ashour had wanted to interview her father for years, but she worried her dad, an immigrant from Egypt whose past she knew little about, would grow uncomfortable or impatient.
So Ashour, who lives in New York, mailed her father, who lives in California, a tiny digital audio recorder and directions to e-mail her the voice files, hoping he'd feel more comfortable doing it in private and on his own time.
Six times over two months, Ashour said, her father sat alone in his garden after work and recorded the story of his life, in chronological order.
"He was incredibly flattered and excited," said Ashour, 31, who was Hart's editor on "The Oral History Workshop." "It's surprising in someone who doesn't normally talk about his personal life."
Digital technology is easiest and lets you do the most with the material. Try to get the best digital recording device you can afford, said Doug Boyd, director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky.
Avoid going to an office supply store, Boyd said, as typically the recorders sold there aren't optimized for preservation. Instead, try a music store; look for recorders with good quality microphone preamps and that will record in standard formats (.wav).
Most important, Boyd said, be sure to practice using the device before you conduct the interview, including placement of the microphone for best sound. And if you can't afford top-of-the-line, don't sweat it.
"Life is short, so record with whatever you can record with," said Boyd, who conducts the technology workshops for the Oral History Association (oralhistory.org).
Ask good questions
Hart advises beginning with some of the questions that you feel are most significant, because you don't want to run out of time.
But sometimes you need to ease in.
Among the hundreds of suggested questions in "The Oral History Workshop" is a list of ice-breakers, which includes Hart's favorite: "What was the best day of your life?"
The book also has a list of 20 all-around great questions that can yield revealing responses, such as, "What's the biggest mistake you ever made?" and "What makes you want to dance?"
Let your subject ramble, and don't get caught up in making sure everything is factually accurate.
Upload your digital files as soon as possible and save them to an external and/or virtual hard drive. Make at least three CDs or DVDs of the interview: one to give to your interviewee, one to listen to, one to store away as a "preservation" copy, Hart said.
Don't rely on your digital recording device or computer alone to store your interview, as they can too easily be lost, stolen or erased.
Spread the love
So ... what to do with it? The possibilities are many:
* Transcribe the interviews, make CDs or DVDs to give as gifts or slip into scrapbooks, make video or audio montages, upload to YouTube, Facebook or a family Web site (if you have permission).
* Many people use iTunes to manage their oral history collections, Boyd said. Helpful editing software includes Peak, Audacity and Sound Forge.
* Consider working with your local or state historical society and submitting the materials to an archive.
Or you can do what Jean Wilcox Hibben does.
Wilcox Hibben, a California genealogist, performs impersonations of her ancestors, using first-person narratives and period dress, at genealogical and historical societies. She weaves what she's culled from oral histories and documents with the historical events of the time and a little creative license.
"I think it's neat to see the people come alive," she said.