by Mary Penner
Most of us know a storyteller. Storytellers can practically haul us backward in time when they weave their dramatic yarns about incidents from long ago. For those of us who hang out with storytellers—family members or friends—we marvel at their gift for storytelling gab and their remarkable memories. Storytellers have a unique way of linking the present to the past through the spoken word.
As family historians, we are constantly striving to link the present to the past as we thumb through page after page of old documents. Sometimes, we forget that we’ve got living, breathing links sitting across the dinner table.
I am a story-preserver. I didn’t expect or plan to become a story-preserver. But, like most people, I know a great story when I hear it. I kept hearing compelling stories from a unique storyteller, an 88-year old man named Irvin, who is a thirty-year Navy veteran. Together, we decided that his stories deserved to be preserved. So, after a three-year effort, we compiled Irvin’s stories into a full-length published book.
Not every storyteller has a life overflowing with adventures like my pal, Irvin. So, don’t worry, the end product doesn’t have to be a book. But, if you regularly cross paths with a good storyteller, consider becoming a story-preserver and save some modern-day family history for future generations. Here are some nuts and bolts to get you started.
Decide the Scope
First, you have to envision an outcome for your story-preservation undertaking. Do you want a full-length book encompassing an entire life, as my project did? Or perhaps you’d like to focus on a particular event or series of events, such as the storyteller’s military service?
Do you want to post these stories on a blog or family website? Do you want to distribute a pamphlet of stories at the next family reunion? The possibilities are as varied as the unique lives of the storytellers. In a way, you have to let the stories dictate the outcome. What do the stories deserve, and from a practical standpoint, what can you as the story-preserver deliver?
Collecting the Stories
Second, you have to gather the stories. I used a digital voice recorder. Irvin talked and I recorded everything he said. We live 250 miles apart, so I couldn’t always record him in person. I bought a telephone pickup cord that plugs into my recorder and allowed me to record phone conversations with him. I downloaded all of those audio recordings, more than fifty hours, onto my computer.
Cataloging the Stories
Third, you need to catalog the stories. Irvin, like many storytellers, has a stream-of-consciousness delivery. His stories popped around from topic to topic. So, I cataloged his stories using an Excel spreadsheet. I gave each separate recording session a name. (I had more than 100 separate recordings.) I put four columns in my spreadsheets: session name, topic, detail, and location on the recording.
The topic column consisted of one or two words that identified the topic. In one 30-minute recording session, for example, Irvin talked about, in this order, President Roosevelt’s death in 1945, serving on the submarine “Amberjack” in the early 1950s, hopping a freight train in the 1930s, sinking a Japanese battleship in 1944, and finally, his first tour in Vietnam in 1966. When Irvin was on a roll, I couldn’t interrupt that spontaneous storytelling flow and say, “tell me about sinking the battleship another day, let’s get back to riding the rails.”
So, when listening to the recordings, I identified the topic, and then typed a brief summary under the detail column, and listed the location on the recording. If he started talking about sinking the battleship at 15.4 minutes into the recording, I listed 15.4. The next topic might start at 22 minutes into the recording. That’s how I could find all of the pieces of information about a particular topic to put together a complete story. His story of sinking the battleship “Kongo,” for example, was extracted from five different recordings.
Pulling It Together
After you’ve cataloged your stories, it’s time to write them. I used the spreadsheet to find all references to a particular story, and I transcribed what Irvin said, word for word from the recordings. Then I took the transcription and shaped it into a cohesive story with a beginning, middle, and end. I added phrases and words for clarity. I edited out extraneous information, and I consulted with Irvin to get more details or to clarify a point. I was careful, though, to keep Irvin’s voice in the stories. Even though I wrote every word of the book, his natural storytelling voice comes through loud and clear.
Publishing the Stories
Finally, after Irvin and I read and re-read every single written story, we moved into the publishing phase of the project. Seeing your story-preservation project through to the end is vital. Without something tangible, without sharing the stories, the project is incomplete. The scope of your project may not be as big as mine, but the methods can work for your project, too.
As we are all haggling with ourselves about our New Year’s resolutions, maybe this should be the year to become a story-preserver. Look around you. Is your father the one with the stories? Is it your grandmother, your neighbor, or a friend of a friend? Or, maybe you are the storyteller. Whoever has the stories, look for a way to preserve them. Author Christina Baldwin wrote, “Whatever detritus we leave after ourselves, story is what makes it valuable.”
Mary Penner is a genealogist and writer. To reach Mary or learn more about her story-preservation project, visit: www.manzanoalley.com.
Other articles in the 08 January 2012 Weekly Discovery: