November 29: Listen to Your Family’s Oral History

For several years now, Storycorps has encouraged us to use the day after Thanksgiving to listen, instead of shop. This “National Day of Listening” recognizes that we need to make time to honor our loved ones through listening. “It’s the least expensive but most meaningful gift you can give this holiday season,” their website states, and I agree wholeheartedly.

And yet, we could use some practical advice on HOW, exactly, to listen to our family. As anyone who’s tried it knows, getting older family members talking can be awkward and frustrating.

Sleeter 2012 small fileThat’s where Christine Sleeter can help. She blogs at “Family and History,” where a recent post addresses using oral history interviews with older family members.

That post begins:

Family Oral History Interviews
Oral history interviewing of older family members is an excellent place to start looking into one’s own family history. From older family members, you can learn a good deal about the family tree, what various members of the family tree were like, where people lived and why they moved or stayed put, what their lives were like, and so forth. Younger family historians often start with interviews rather than electronic data such as census records, since interviews can be so highly informative. Add to that, older people in the family often feel honored when younger family members want to hear their stories – unless their stories are extraordinarily painful or laced with shame, in which case they may prefer to leave the past in the past.

Before plunging into family history interviews, I recommend doing some background planning first. There are heaps of guides available. One of the most useful is the Smithsonian Oral History Interview Guide, which I learned about in a conversation with a colleague who was using it with students and commented to me that it had opened up possibilities he hadn’t considered before. This guide, which you can download as a PDF file, begins by discussing the value of interviewing “bearers of tradition” who are often but not always older than you. The guide walks you through the entire process of an interview, beginning with planning the purpose of your interview, figuring out equipment you might need, and co-planning logistics of the interview with the interviewee. The guide then provides helpful considerations when starting the interview and making it go well, then what to do after the interview. Following that are suggested questions you can ask about family folklore and history, local history and community life, and cultural traditions and occupational skills. The guide concludes with excellent suggestions for how you might share what you learned, such as creating a family exhibition. (Another guide that is useful and, although perhaps less extensive, covers much the same territory is Judith Moyer’s Step by Step Guide for Doing Oral History.)

Read more here…

In addition to writing about family history, Sleeter has  written a novel, Searching for Gemutlichkeit, which she shares in blog form. About it, she writes,

Searching for Gemütlichkeit is a historical novel based on my family history.

I started researching my family history several years ago, having grown up knowing almost nothing about my family beyond my grandparents, and even that was sketchy. In the process of that research, I became interested in the window it provided into history, especially the construction of culture, race and class. As I worked, my ancestors gradually become characters, people my writing was bringing to life. I began to find the stories from the past that had become lost.

The stories of a century ago relate to concerns people struggle with today. So, to create a conversation between past and present, I fictionalized the present-day characters. Their struggles are common and familiar, only the details of their lives are imaginary.

Read more here…

I find it intriguing to think of sculpting fiction from a family’s stories. And I find more of the posts on Sleeter’s blog enticing…how about “Why Study Family to Understand History“? Or “How Family History can Reveal Details of Poor People’s Lives in the Past“?

I look forward to exploring more of Sleeter’s writing. How about you?

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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