In his TED Talk, Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps, said, “The simple act of interviewing someone can mean so much to people, particularly to those who had been told their stories didn’t matter.” It doesn’t take long at this work to realize, in awe, that an interview, focused listening, can be a simple, valuable gift.
Early in my venture as a personal historian I responded to a call for writers to interview homeless people in Boulder, Colorado. The project was conceived by a husband and wife team. He, a portrait photographer, took a photo of each person interviewed, giving them an 8x10” matted copy. The wife organized writers who would conduct the interviews. The resulting photo essay book was sold to provide community resources for the homeless in Boulder. The book was titled Until They Have Faces, speaking to the fact that we avoid eye contact with the homeless. As if they don’t have faces—or stories. But of course they did. When I arrived at the community soup kitchen, I found my first assigned interviewee, Gregory, standing under a shade tree on a muggy July day in intermittent rain. His yellow Lab rested peacefully under the tree at his side while Gregory spoke.
Gregory told me his story. When his marriage fell apart, his wife got the house and car, and Gregory got the better deal—the dog, whom he named “Dog,” pronounced “dee-oh-gee.” They hit the road. Greg had been a hard drinker, but gave it up to look after Dog. “I tell people, ‘Dog rescued me,’ and he did. I love him very much. He’s always been by my side.” The two of them walked from Florida to Colorado.
Dog has kept Gregory homeless longer than he might have been. It’s difficult to find a job to which Greg can bring him. Greg’s greatest day-to-day trials are with people who assume that because he is homeless he must be mistreating his dog.
Listening to Gregory gave me the opportunity to affirm the worth of his story, and the great care and responsibility he shows with his beautiful dog. Listening gave me the excuse to look him in the eye. The character I found there was a gift to me.
A couple of years later, I was visiting the home of an elderly couple to capture the story of the wife’s mother. A German immigrant between WWI and WWII, she had been widowed with three young daughters and had run a boarding house on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.
My client’s husband had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, but was still in relatively good health. As we were talking in the evening, he spoke fondly of his lifetime career in agronomy, experimenting in fields across the country to develop more productive and nutritious strains of corn, alfalfa, fescue, and vegetables. At 84 he was still consulting with seed companies. I asked if I could record his story for his grandchildren, and he seemed delighted to be asked.
The next morning I set up my recorder, and Bill was ready. It was obvious that he had given presentations his whole life. This one had a beginning, middle, and end. It contained the facts and delightful stories. He related his work to his enjoyment of gardening on weekends and summers on a small farm he inherited a couple of hours from their home.
When he finished, the recording totaled just over eleven minutes. “Oh, was it too short?” he asked, surprised at the length. And indeed it must have seemed short to summarize a career life.
“No,” I said. “It was perfect.” It reflected a career in which he drew deep satisfaction, and it will give his listeners a keen sense of who he was.
Bill passed away a couple of months later, and I believe that interview was a gift to him as well as to his children and grandchildren. What a privilege it is to give the gift of an interview!