Listening Is An Act of Love

by Jerry Waxler

Last week, when I was visiting WHYY studio in Philadelphia I saw the mobile StoryCorps van and interviewed facilitator Mike Rauch about what StoryCorps does. It intrigued me so much, I went back to Philly last night to hear Dave Isay the founder of StoryCorps speak at the National Constitution Center. He was explaining StoryCorps, talking about is own path, and sharing some of the stories from his book. StoryCorps is a non-profit corporation, and according to Dave Isay, it’s the fasting growing nonprofit corporation in the country. Now, if that’s not a trend, I don’t know what is.

Learning about other people’s lives, through their stories is gripping the national imagination. I think it’s because we’re tired of watching sitcom actors play out their perfectly scripted lives. We want real people. In my opinion, this is the reason for the scrapbooking craze, the blogging craze, and the memoir craze. Now we’re poised for the audio story craze.

At the current rate, the StoryCorps is gathering 7,000 stories a year, and it’s growing exponentially, with new facilities and programs coming online all the time. During the question and answer period, a schoolteacher asked if the stories ever become repetitive. Dave Isay said, “No. At first I also had that fear, that we would start hearing the same story over and over. But it never happened.” He added that in his opinion the most important recipient of the story was the family member who was in the recording booth hearing intimate details for the first time. More often than not, people break down and cry in the middle of the telling. These are touching, intimate moments that open up pathways among people.

Before the age of electronics, say in the nineteenth century and before, people had to use each other for entertainment. They told stories, played the piano, participated in parlor games. This gave them time to get to know each other. When I was growing up, that all changed. We glued ourselves to the tube and let others do the entertainment for us. That’s been going on long enough, and we’re growing weary of being strangers to each other.

Dave Isay’s book is called “Listening is an Act of Love.” As a therapist, I have found his title to be true. Part of my training was to keep my mouth shut and listen. It doesn’t sound like much, but sometimes it’s the most generous, caring, healing thing you can do. Now, Dave Isay and the StoryCorps want to show everyone that same power. Dave Isay’s book “Listening is an act of Love” contains a number of stories as told by people in the StoryCorps booth. Remarkably, all profits from the book go to support the mission of the StoryCorps.

The stories are not edited, nor do they provide much backstory. After reading memoirs, it’s easy to see the many differences between oral and written life story. But rather than focus on the differences, here are a few ways that oral storytelling fits in with the charter of writing your life story.

  • Use story listening to help you learn about yourself. To research his memoir, Foster Winans interviewed people in his life to ask them how they remembered him.
  • Use story telling as a way to dredge up material. It’s amazing how much comes to mind when you are telling a story. Sit with someone who really cares. Ask each other questions. Let the story emerge. You’ll find material you had not thought about in years.
  • As you write your memoir, you will become more sensitized to the variety of human experience. By seeing your own story from the inside, you will want to know other people’s stories. And this will open you to the inner lives of the people in your family and beyond.
  • As you read memoirs, do the same thing a listener would do in that recording booth. Slow down, and listen. You will realize that everyone has an inner life, and reading about it will expand the range of your understanding of the human condition.

For more information about this piece, see this links:
Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center
StoryCorps
WHYY Philadelphia’s Public Television and Radio Station
My previous essay on StoryCorps

Creative brain jam in Philly ties it all together

 by Jerry Waxler

I went to Philadelphia last week to see a few people sit at a table and chat. The promoters called it a “panel discussion.” To me it was as good as a rock concert. The panelists entertained the audience by sharing themselves, using words instead of musical notes. The occasion was another one of those Boomervision talks I enjoy down at WHYY public television studio. The Boomervision talks are hosted by WHYY and Coming of Age, and were introduced by Coming of Age director Dick Goldberg. This evening’s panel was called “You are what you create.”

I love these gatherings because they are my best opportunity to hear people share their observations about life and growing older. Imam Miller, a Muslim preacher, said that growing older at any age makes most sense when you are growing towards God. Community activist, Irma Gardner-Hammond “preaches” by telling stories. I loved that she has found this method to share wisdom. And professors, Mary and Ken Gergen, also told some fine stories. They publish the Positively Aging newsletter, which reports on the good news about aging.
The riff that impressed me most during the evening was a woman in the audience who stood up and said she had raised 6 kids by herself, because their dad ran off. Now the kids have kids and she has to raise them too, and it never ends, and so how can she be creative under so much pressure. The room grew quiet, and I could feel my heart weighted down with the heaviness of her life. Irma suggested she expand the meaning of creativity to embrace the challenges of surviving under adverse circumstances. Ken Gergen, in a kind voice reached out to her with the music of his mind, and suggested that if she could tell the story of her life, that she might find in it the strength to carry on. His voice awakened echoes of Viktor Frankl’s tune, that finding meaning is what makes life worthwhile.

Before the program the technicians set up their camera equipment. The production assistant, watching the large overhead monitor, said in monotone, “a little to the right.” The panelist’s caring face inched closer to the center of the screen. “A little to the right.” The camera intoned again. When he was satisfied he said, “Set” and shifted his attention to the next panelist. As I sat in the audience watching these arcane workings of the television studio, a man behind me leaned over and asked me who I am and what I do. I squirmed. I’ve never had an easy time talking about myself, but now that I’m researching my memoir, I am far more open up with strangers than I ever have been in my life. His name was RegE, and he asked me where I went to high school, and I told him Central High. He gestured to his wife, Geri. “She went to Girl’s High.” That’s the school that I passed every day on my way to and from the trolley stop at Broad and Olney. She asked me if I was one of the Central High boys who hung around talking to the girls as they came out of school. I blushed, remembering how much of a nerd I was. She might as well have asked me if I wrestled alligators. “No. I worked at my dad’s drugstore.” RegE asked where the drugstore was. I said, “Seventeenth and Tioga,” Now it was Geri’s turn to dime on her husband. She said, “RegE grew up a few blocks from there, at Seventeenth and Erie.” I lived the first year of my life in the apartment above the store, and worked there all through high school. RegE and I had spent some of the crucial years of our lives within a few blocks of each other.

So there I was at WHYY’s Boomervision panel, returning to Philadelphia to understand my own life. In a way, meeting RegE and his wife is as close to coming home as I can get. The city has changed dramatically since I grew up in North Philadelphia, and so have the people with whom I have shared my cabin on this spaceship earth. It’s a vast ever-changing world, and one that makes no sense whatsoever, until we create the stories that bring us all together.

See also a blog entry on a previous Boomervision talk by clicking here.

StoryCorps – a national initiative to gather oral memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

I went to WHYY last week to see Boomervision. That’s the name of a series of gatherings hosted by Coming of Age in Philadelphia, to explore issues of boomers reaching a new milestone in their lives. Outside, pulled up on the sidewalk of the WHYY studio was a mobile van with the logo of “StoryCorps,” painted on the side. I had heard about this organization that travels around the country recording oral histories. People come to the StoryCorps van and interview someone they know. The StoryCorps gives them each a copy of the recording, and files a copy in the Library of Congress. It’s a way to remember parts of life and make those memories available for posterity. The door was open and I went inside.

The young man who was sitting there, Mike Rauch, greeted me, and I asked him questions about what he does and how it works. Most people come here with a relative, and the younger one asks the older one questions. But there is no formula or rule. Some people come more than once. He told me that one woman in New York has been into the recording booth 70 times. She brings friends, relatives, even strangers, and interviews them about their lives. We were sitting in the kitchen of a converted travel trailer. The other half was the sound studio. While Mike and I sat talking at the cramped kitchen booth, a 90-something year old black woman was sitting right next to him, looking off to the side, trying not to intrude on our conversation.

She had just finished doing a recording and was waiting for her niece to pick her up. I turned to her and asked, “How did you feel about doing this interview?” Her eyes jumped to life when she looked up at me, and sparkled for a moment. She said, “It was okay.” Then paused. “I just remember so much. So much,” and she looked at the floor. Mike said, “Yes, she was saying things that her niece had never heard, even though they had been through this same material many times before.” I asked Mike if telling their story hurts people sometimes. He said, “Oh yes, we keep a box of tissue in there. People cry a lot, but they never want to stop talking. And they remember happy moments, too.”

I asked him what it was like being there day after day listening and helping with these interviews. He said, “I’m fascinated by the variety of the stories. These situations are all so unique. You can’t make this stuff up.” I was wondering if this was a career position for him. “I’m at that point in my life when I’m trying to carve out a niche for myself. I’m going to start a video and animation production company with my brother.” I thought how interesting to see the span of life. Here he is, trying to understand where his life is going, and he’s sitting next to a woman in a wheelchair, majestic in her abundance of days. Two hours ago they had never seen each other, and then he listened to her tell her niece memories from six and seven decades earlier. Now these two were bonded by story.

Next week, I’m going back. David Isay, founder of the StoryCorps will be speaking in Philadelphia and signing his book Listening is an Act of Love.

Learn more about StoryCorps from their website, www.storycorps.net