Finding History by Tugging on the Family Heartstrings 

A Scene writer gives StoryCorps a shot

My mother and I were nearing the end of our long drive from her home in Stewart County to the Nashville Public Library downtown. As I dodged the traffic on I-40, she was anxious, but not because of the tractor-trailers hurtling past us. “What if I mess up?” she asked.
My mother and I were nearing the end of our long drive from her home in Stewart County to the Nashville Public Library downtown. As I dodged the traffic on I-40, she was anxious, but not because of the tractor-trailers hurtling past us. “What if I mess up?” she asked. “Will we have a chance to do it over?” Nope, no do-overs, I tell her, but she shouldn’t worry. Whatever she says will be fine. She’s not quite reassured. “I’m just afraid I’ll forget something.”

I had to smile a little at the unintended irony. We were on our way to take part in StoryCorps, perhaps the largest oral history project ever devoted to the recording of personal memories. To date, nearly 30,000 people across the U.S. have participated. The basic idea is simple: Two people, along with a StoryCorps “facilitator,” go into a sound booth and spend 40 minutes talking about whatever they want to remember and preserve. It can be anything, from a veteran’s combat experience to the story of how grandma met grandpa. When they’re done, they get a CD of the recorded session, and a second copy is permanently archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

National Public Radio listeners are familiar with StoryCorps from the heart-tugging snippets that have been airing since the project started with a booth in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal in 2003. (There are now several MobileBooths that visit cities and towns for a month at a time. One of them left Memphis last week, but Nashville and Milwaukee have the only long-term StoryBooths outside New York City.) The segments are highly popular with NPR audiences, and now there’s a book and CD of selected stories, Listening Is an Act of Love, being hawked at Starbucks. Jim Havron, the Nashville Public Library’s liaison with StoryCorps, is keenly aware of the need to record stories from outside the typically white, affluent public radio demographic: “We very much wish to include all groups of people. We’re making a special effort through community outreach to involve minorities, low-income folks and the elderly.” He’s also made it his mission to draw in some of the homeless denizens of the downtown library.

StoryCorps is the brainchild of journalist David Isay, who got his start working for Amy Goodman of the long-running liberal news program Democracy Now! He’s been the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, and he founded a nonprofit production company, Sound Portraits, that makes gritty documentaries for NPR. His past projects there have included a moment-by-moment account of a Texas execution, and a story on one of the last flophouses in New York City’s Bowery.

StoryCorps was created under the aegis of Sound Portraits, but gritty it’s not. Some participants bring tragic stories to tell, and there are special initiatives within the project to collect memories of 9/11, as well as accounts of the African-American experience. But overall, StoryCorps is resolutely warm and fuzzy, shamelessly touting itself as a feel-good opportunity for bonding with friends and family. Isay hopes the project will remind “us all just how precious each day can be and how truly great it is to be alive.”

That upbeat approach was very much in evidence when my mother and I arrived at the StoryCorps sound booth, in a corner of the library’s Nashville Room. We were immediately greeted by our facilitator, Esi Arthur—a warm, vivacious young woman. “Welcome, welcome, welcome,” she said, beaming an infectious smile. Nashville’s three other facilitators, all women, happened to be there to attend a meeting, and each went out of her way to say hello, smile and be encouraging. It felt a little like being rushed by a sorority.

We were ushered over to armchairs and given acid-free forms to fill out with archival pens, one of many reminders that this was all going to be preserved for posterity. Arthur gave us a quick tutorial on how to prevent recording problems: avoid finger-tapping, shifting in the chair, throat-clearing, etc. StoryCorps is all over the details. As we entered the booth, I noticed a box of tissues discreetly placed on the table where we were to sit. Tears are more the rule than the exception in StoryCorps world, and no one wants to waste precious recording time fumbling for Kleenex.

One person is designated as the interviewer, one the interviewee, but there’s no script to guide the conversation. The facilitator is there primarily to oversee the recording, though she may help things along if there’s a lull. Participants are encouraged to do a little brainstorming beforehand about what to discuss, but once the recording starts, they just wing it. My mother and I had decided that she would talk about her life as a singer, a passion she has pursued since she started singing gospel music with her preacher father at age 4.

Closed in that tiny room with a huge microphone pushed into her face, all my mother’s nervousness seemed to fall away, and she spoke with eloquence and humor about the whole arc of her life. It was obvious that the opportunity to tell her story, knowing it would be preserved just as she told it, brought her enormous pleasure. I could see her confidence build as she spoke, and I suspect she could have easily gone on for another hour when Arthur called time on us. I had heard most of my mother’s anecdotes many times, but I was moved in spite of myself as I listened. I felt very proud of her, of her talent and all the things she has overcome to keep making the music she loves at age 71.

It may be micromanaged and a little heavy on the happy talk, but on an individual level, at least, the StoryCorps experience does exactly what it claims to do. I think my mother walked out of there feeling more validated than she ever has in her life. And I felt closer to her. I suspect, in fact, that it’s the regimentation that makes the magic work. The forced concentration, the time limit and the absence of distractions all combine to create an intensity that could never happen in a kitchen table conversation. For our allotted 40 minutes, my mother and I were more completely present for each other than we have been since I was an infant.

The larger aspirations of the project, however, seem a little more dubious. The purpose of archiving the sessions at the Library of Congress is to create, as the website states, “a growing portrait of who we really are as Americans,” but it’s worth asking how complete or accurate that portrait is likely to be. Inevitably, such a vast project will capture impressions of real events and social trends, but ultimately the focus is on emotion and purely subjective experience. It’s not that the emotions aren’t genuine, but what’s the historic value in their wholesale preservation?

When people listen to these recordings a century from now, the main thing they’ll probably learn is that we are a nation of narcissists, something they could just as easily gather from watching episodes of Oprah and Dr. Phil. In fact, StoryCorps itself seems like a product of that television talk show culture, which encourages the notion that self-exposure is a virtue, and no feeling is too trivial to be displayed. Perhaps the question for future historians will not be about what’s in the StoryCorps recordings, but why people bothered to make them at all.

I put the question to my mother as we drove back to her house. Did she think there was something suspiciously Oprahfied about StoryCorps? “Oh yeah,” she agreed. “It’s true... ‘Oprahfied,’ I love that.” She laughed a little and then fell silent for a while. “You know,” she said, “today was really wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

Of course she did. My mother is a woman of her time—and so am I. In spite of my reservations, I thoroughly enjoyed it, too. The StoryBooth will remain at the downtown library through mid-September 2008. To make a reservation, visit library.nashville.org and click on the link at the bottom, or call the NPL at 862-5782.

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