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Holding onto voices: Reasons and ways to record people's stories

I have in my cabinet a set of cassette tapes that hold three-days-worth of my grandmother telling stories, and I'm slowly transferring them to mp3 files and transcribing them. I made these recordings for a grad school assignment. My dad and I sat in the kitchen with my grandparents, and Grandma told stories about her life. It has been 30 years since I made those recordings, and both of my grandparents are long gone. Listening to those tapes, though, and hearing my grandma and all of us telling stories and laughing and questioning is wonderful. This is the type of family history that needs to be captured and put into a form for my kids and my grandkids and so on.

In these days of electronic communication and distraction, sharing stories is too often reduced to momentary interaction and fleeting focus. We might have time to talk with each other while driving somewhere, but often during a drive we are looking at our phones or watching a movie on the van’s drop-down screen or a tablet. We’re multi-tasking, we tell ourselves, but we also don’t hold onto the moment itself. Holiday get-togethers or weekly extended family meals might be times to ask the older people in our lives about their days or prompt someone to repeat a story everyone already knows. At the time forgetting these stories can seem impossible, but they often are lost without someone writing the stories down or recording the conversations.

This week is Thanksgiving and many people will be visiting family. Others might be gathered with friends or helping at soup kitchens or sitting with one’s memories of people who aren’t here this year. Most people don’t have class assignments to encourage them to record stories, so around the holidays are the times for capturing stories.

It isn’t too difficult. Let people know that you want to collect stories, and then as people talk, set your phone on record. There are apps that can be downloaded to your phone that will record voices as well as a separate voice recorder, and people are so used to seeing phones sitting on tables that you are less likely to distract your speakers. If you are writing, listen closely and try to capture the story’s essence. It’s not necessary to get a tale word-for-word in the moment, but make sure you find time alone soon afterwards to fill in what you heard.

When helping at a service event, the stories won’t necessarily be family ones, but you can encourage people to talk with questions you might consider asking family members. Be willing to share your own answers to those questions; it is the give and take that allows someone to share. Especially when asking a person who is alone about his or her life adds to a meal a feeling of worth and gives your own stories a connection to others. It is the same as the effect of sharing stories around a family dinner table or sitting together with friends at a restaurant. If you are sitting with memories alone or after losing someone important, capture those memories. Write down the stories of being with that person for future generations of family and friends.

The transcribing of the recordings or the turning of notes into a narrative is the next step. At this point, it might be worth hiring someone to do that polish and put those stories into publishable form. At the very least, though, if you have the recordings, take the time to transfer them from your phone or other device to mp3 files so you have them later. In that form, it’s possible to give copies to the family or friends or even a local library or historical society. That’s a keepsake whose worth is immeasurable.

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