Dave Isay and the Power of Story

I had the pleasure of meeting Dave Isay, Founder of StoryCorps, in Austin at a book signing in 2007, shortly after he released his book, Listening Is an Act of Love – A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project. There are two people I look up to in admiration for demonstrating the utilization of their talents: one is Steven Spielberg; the other is Dave Isay. Like most of you, I knew of Steven Spielberg and his work back then. I knew little of Dave Isay.

TED Prize Winner Dave Isay speaks at TED2015.

Rather than trying to describe who Dave Isay is and what he has accomplished, this TED Talk will explain it beautifully: https://tinyurl.com/y9f9tegb. He really gets the power of story…and has created a platform for proving it. In the process, he has also created a mindset regarding the importance of story. Yet, most people will never record their stories or those of their loved ones.

I hope to change that with the work I do at LifeStories Alive https://lifestoriesalive.com. If you are not moved to go out and record the stories of a loved one by Dave Isay’s TED Talk, I have two suggestions:

  1. Hire a professional to do it for you. I can help with that. How would Dave Isay’s story be different if he hadn’t thought to record his father’s stories before he died? You might be saying to yourself, “Yea, but Dave is a professional at gathering stories.” You’re right. He is. But using that as an excuse for not recording the stories of your own parents does not eliminate the risk of burying their stories with them when they die. You must act now. That leads me to my second suggestion.
  2.  If you don’t want to hire a professional to do it for you, but don’t know where to begin to do it yourself, buy the book I authored and released a few weeks ago, A Conversation You’ll Never Forget – A Guide to Capturing a LifeStory https://tinyurl.com/ConversationYoullNeverForget. In it, you’ll learn a step-by-step process to do it yourself.

StoryCorps and the work Dave Isay has done over the years is remarkable. Imagine, however, if each of those 100,000 stories was captured on video instead of just audio. Not only would you hear the voices, but the voices would come alive as you saw the mannerisms and felt the emotion of the people telling the stories. That’s why I encourage you to capture the stories on video.

Dave Isay taught you the power of story in the video above. Now it’s up to you. Keep those LifeStories alive. It will be a conversation you’ll never forget!

 

Tom Hanks and Typewriters?

This morning’s CBS Sunday Morning broadcast included a story of Tom Hanks and one of his favorite artifacts to collect…typewriters. Who knew? https://www.cbsnews.com/news/tom-hanks-uncommon-type/

As one of my favorite actors, Hanks has always played his characters on film as if he were really them. This is the first interview I’ve seen that brings out what I feel is the essence of who he is as a regular person. Here are three reasons why:

  1. Mementos and personal artifacts we’ve collected over the years are part of our stories. Hanks explains why he loves typewriters in an emotional way that involves your senses. He even ties this into the book he is about to release, Uncommon Type. His description of each typewriter, “Each typewriter has sort of a personality”, makes me see his personality in each machine. Each of us has an artifact, a memento in our lives that describe the essence of who we are. This interview makes me look around to find the memento in my home that describes me.
  2. He reveals a part of his childhood that I never knew. By the time he was ten years old, both his parents had been married three times and he lived in ten different houses. His attitude of that period of time: “I thought it was a cool adventure. I was confused a lot about why it happened…In some ways it’s like I’m going back and looking at those times, for me and my siblings, and trying to put context into the confusion.” How does that change a young boy? What effect does that have on his future? Hanks explains it with a sense of calm and curiosity.
  3. His comment at the end, “If I see enough stories that are around and start asking enough questions about where it would go, then, yea, I hope to write more.” He’s always looking for more. His next adventure in writing is unknown, but he keeps asking questions. I can relate.

As my first book is due to be published at the end of this month (stay tuned), I, too, hope to keep “asking enough questions” and to write more. Thank you, Tom Hanks. You and your typewriters are an inspiration.

What I Learned From Robin Williams

Robin-Williams-Quotes-Good-Will-Hunting-1

I just finished watching Robin Williams Remembered – A Pioneers of Television Special (PBS). After watching this wonderful PBS special, not only do I miss him more than before, but I feel I have learned new things about him that might help me and, hopefully, you as well. What new things did I learn from Robin Williams? Here they are:

  1. When you have talents that you are keenly aware of, be open to improving your craft by watching, listening and asking for help from others. Robin did this best with his friends whom he looked up to; guys like Richard Pryor and his mentor, Jonathan Winters.
  2. Don’t be afraid to fail. Most of us only remember him for his successes, his award-winning performances on television, stand-up comedy and film. What we don’t remember is that he failed from time to time. Mork & Mindy was cancelled after only its fourth season. The movie Popeye bombed at the box office. Not all of his stand up nights were a success.
  3. He listened and was open to taking direction from trusted friends and colleagues. Of his Oscar-winning performance in Good Will Hunting, he spoke of doubting himself after shooting a scene and wondering if he was getting it right. Robin said of Director Gus Van Sant, “With Gus Van Sant in Good Will Hunting, … at the end he said, ‘Just have the conversation. Just talk.’ So you’re not acting per se, but, eventually, things start to happen.”
  4. He went with what felt right, what was true to himself, and let it come together if, and when, it was supposed to come together. He hadn’t know if it would all come together. But eventually, he found a way to combine his genius in stand-up comedy, serious Juilliard-trained method acting, and film roles into a unique style that set him apart from all others.

I am a bit weird. I have talents that are not conventional or normal. I love listening to people’s stories, I immediately have questions pop into my mind that encourage more of their story to reveal itself, and I continue to want to know more with sincere interest and genuine curiosity. That’s what happens in my mind. I can’t begin to wonder what happened in Robin Williams’ mind, but I know it was strange to most people. From his example, however, I have learned to continue to believe in what I do, and, hopefully, one day soon, the talents will be recognized and appreciated by a larger audience.

“You’ll have bad times, but it’ll always wake you up to the good times you weren’t paying attention to.” – from Good Will Hunting

Thank you, Robin Williams, for teaching me these valuable lessons. May you rest in peace. I miss you!

The Life Story Not Recorded

“I wish I would have known you (x number of) years ago when my grandmother (or grandfather) was still alive. She had the best stories and once she got going telling those stories, you couldn’t get her to stop!” My next comment is typically, “Did you record those stories while she was still alive?” Invariably, the answer is, “No.”

Mother-daughter photo

What is lost by not recording the stories? Only you can answer the emotional response to that question. But based on over a decade of recording the life stories of many individuals, couples and siblings for their families, I can give you the logical main reasons. Lost are:

  1. Many stories you’ve never heard before.
  2. The audible sound of their voice.
  3. The physical movements and body language as they expressed themselves in many scenarios.
  4. The facts that connect you to this loved one. Facts that you never knew or ever dreamed existed.

I could list many more, but I think you get the picture.

The next question is, “Why weren’t the stories ever recorded?” Whether you consider the answer that question reasons or excuses makes no difference. The answers are so varied…and so sad.

The good news is that you now have the opportunity to not make that same mistake again. You have the opportunity to record the life stories of a friend or loved one now. This article is written as a guide to help you do just that. I will post helpful hints on how to record those stories in future blog posts.

These blog posts will combine some of the training that I received in the 1990s preparing to interview Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education) with the practical experience I’ve enjoyed interviewing hundreds of people since starting LifeStories Alive in 2005.

My hope is that the posts serve as a guide that gives you the basics to take the plunge and capture the life stories of someone you love. Even though you may have never interviewed someone before in anything that resembles this method or reason, you will not regret it. Why? I know that you will feel, as I do every time I finish a LifeStories Alive interview, that goose bump-causing rush when they finish answering the last question you ask them, and they sigh that familiar sigh knowing that their stories are now recorded for generations to come. You, then, can feel the satisfaction of knowing that you were the one, not anyone else, who gave their lives more meaning and helped them fulfill the goal of passing along their legacy.

Enjoy the process. Have fun. And thanks for keeping those life stories alive!

Why Do We Tell Stories?

As one who helps people tell their stories (on video), I particularly enjoyed this week’s episode of KUT Radio’s “Two Guys on Your Head” with Dr. Art Markman​ and Dr. Bob Duke.  “We need stories in order to make sense of things” is one of the things they explain. Please listen & enjoy! http://kut.org/post/why-do-we-tell-stories

One of their points is that stories help us connect and make sense of the many bits of information in our brains. This is nothing new and most people agree with it (as I do). But if this is widely accepted as fact, then why are so many people hesitant to tell the stories of their own lives?

I have always thought the main reason is that our society teaches us that if we talk about ourselves, we are bragging…and that’s a very bad thing to do! Yet, we learn so much from the stories of others. Valuable life lessons are learned often from strangers who are not related or whom we previously didn’t care much about. In my work at LifeStories Alive, I have had my clients (usually the children of the interviewees) tell me of the exciting and valuable lessons they’ve learned from their loved ones, just by listening to their life’s stories.

So I ask for your help in answering the above question, “Why are so many people hesitant to tell the stories of their own lives?” Your ideas, thoughts and input in the Leave a Reply section below will be much appreciated.

Two Guys on Your Head

 

An Answer to the Tough Question, “Why Record Their Life Stories?”

Over the years of recording people’s life stories, I will ask my clients, who are usually the children of the interviewee(s), “Why do you want to record their life stories?” While the answers I have heard may vary, the root of the answers usually incorporate a common theme. That common theme is as tough to grasp as the question itself: the realization of their mortality.

We all know we are, some day, going to die. Our society has taught us that discussing this, even just thinking about it, is a frightening thing to do. And when we think of it happening to someone we love, emotion kicks in and then we really don’t want to talk or think about it. But when considering the mortality of a loved one, one of the risks of giving in to the fear of not addressing it is that one of the most important legacies they could leave behind, their stories, will be lost forever.

As with most of our fears that we finally address, confronting the fear and dealing with it leaves us in a state of gratitude for the lessons we learn from the experience. I continually hear from my clients after they’ve viewed the LifeStory we recorded of their loved one, tremendous joy in not only hearing the stories, but knowing that they are preserved forever.

The good news is that, while I’d love to help you record the stories, you don’t need a professional to record the stories of your loved ones. You can do it yourself. The next blog post will give you helpful hints on how to do it yourself.

In the meantime, think of the collective hugs you get when you answer the tough question, “Why record their life stories?”

mother hugs

 

 

End of Life Lesson Learned Today

Just two days ago at around noon I received an email from my friend, Kristi Curry, who has a wonderful business called Survivorship Now http://survivorshipnow.com/. A friend of hers in Katy, Texas named Ben wrote to her saying that his church buddy, Dan (age 49), was just given bad news about his cancer and was advised to call in hospice care immediately. Ben called Kristi to ask for her professional advice to help Dan’s wife organize her life for what was to come. He also said he wanted to videotape Dan’s stories so his two kids would know him better when they grew older. Ben asked Kristi for advise on what questions to ask and how to ask them. That’s when Kristi referred me.

I connected with Ben yesterday via email, then by phone. Ben explained that Dan didn’t have any funds to afford a professional LifeStory and that he was going to do it pro-bono. I don’t know why it happened, but something inside me said I have to do it. I told Ben that I could be there (two and a half hours away) the following morning by 10:30 to conduct the interview, as long as Ben filmed it.

When we arrived at Dan’s home this morning, we were greeted by Dan’s beautiful and gracious wife, Marcina. We set up the camera in Dan’s bedroom and tried to get as much as we could of an interview, but unfortunately, due to the medications he was on, could not record much. What we did record, however, showed what a loving, caring father and husband he was. Rather than coming home without much of anything for Dan’s family, I asked Marcina if she wouldn’t mind being interviewed…to capture Dan’s LifeStories through the stories of his loving wife. She agreed and we filmed about two hours of her smiles, tears and love for her husband. She showed unbelievable bravery and unselfish caring for her husband who was too ill to express his story himself.

By 1:00 PM, we left her home with hugs and well wishes to her for strength during the tough journey ahead that she faced. I arrive back home at around 4:00 PM, exhausted, but glad I had accomplished what I had that day. An hour later Ben called. He said he called to thank me, to be sure I got home okay, and…after a long pause…to tell me someone from his church called an hour ago to say that Dan had just died.

At first I was in a bit of shock. Yesterday, Dan was a total stranger to me. And now, after only knowing he and his wife for a few hours, I feel like an integral part of their lives. The lesson I’ve believe I learned from today’s experience is to share your stories with the ones you love often, to celebrate life at every opportunity you get, and to give unselfishly whenever you can. Had I thought, “It’s been a long week, I’m too tired to drive all the way to Katy early on a Saturday morning, conduct this unpaid interview, then drive all the way back,” I would not have met Dan and his wife. And I am a better man now…because of them.

Thank you Kristi, Ben, Marcina, and especially Dan. May you rest in eternal peace.

“You Don’t Understand”

One would think that if you just heard someone tell you, “You don’t understand”, it would be a negative thing. But when a client of mine told me just that and explained why he said that, I knew it was a much-needed compliment. Let me explain.

I interviewed this client’s parents in Dallas back in May, 2007. His father died about a year later. I called him recently to thank him for referring yet another of his friends to me to have a LifeStory done for their parent(s). I said, “I don’t quite know how to thank you for the numerous referrals you’ve given me.” He said, “You don’t understand. I keep your LifeStory DVDs on my desk at my office. Whenever I am missing Dad, all I have to do is pop in the DVD into my computer and there he is.” He went on to explain that giving me referrals is his gift to his friends so they can experience those memories for themselves.

I was speechless. Little did I know how much those LifeStory DVDs meant to him. I say this not to pat myself on the back, but to remind each of you the importance of recording the memories of your loved ones…whether you do it yourself or hire a professional to do it for you.  If you want to do it yourself but don’t know where to begin, please call me. I’d be glad to help you get started. It’s too important to ignore.

I hope you can now say, as I did that day, “Now I understand.”

How to Ask the Difficult Questions

One of the many rewards I receive from interviewing people for their LifeStories is the gratitude from the children and grandchildren of the interviewees. One of the things they typically say is, “I’ve known them all my life but have never heard that story before.” One of the reasons why they’ve never heard the story is because they never asked the question. The most common reason for not asking the question is because it is a difficult one to ask. Here are my thoughts on asking those difficult questions you’ve waited a lifetime to ask:

Thought #1 – Ask the Question Anyway – “How do I word the question?”, “When is the best time to ask it?”, Where should I ask them that question?” are all real fears that get in the way. I say, “As the question anyway.” The fact that you are concerned with those points should let you know that you are sensitive to the subject. If you let fear, however, get in the way of your asking the question, it will never be asked. All too often, I’ll hear at a funeral, “I never knew _____ about them.” If you don’t ask, you’ll never know! Ask anyway.

Thought #2 – Use Empathy – Think to yourself, “If someone were to ask me the same question, how would I want it to be asked of me?” Whatever the answer to that is, use it to ask the question. This is how I formulate many of the questions I use in the LifeStory interviews I conduct. If you follow this advice, your caring and concern for the other person will shine through and make their answer as genuine as it can be.

Thought #3 – They’ve Been Waiting for You to Ask the Question for a Long Time – While this idea might seem foreign to you, you’ll be surprised when they tell you, “I knew you were going to ask me that. I just didn’t know when you were going to get around to it.” The amazing thing about this is that the’ve had an answer for you in their mind for a long time. Think about it in your own life experiences…some things you are just not going to volunteer to tell people unless and until they ask. But when they ask, you will gladly answer. It’s true!

Thought #4 – Approach the Question with the Benefit of Others in Mind – Here’s an example of what I mean by that: “I know you went through a divorce in 1968. Please share with me what experiences you went through and what lessons you learned from those experiences so others (substitute here “your grandchildren”, “your children”, “I”, etc. instead of “others” if it fits) will not go through the same difficult times as you did.” Remember, everyone goes through difficult times in life. Most people would be happy to share those experiences if it means being able to help others avoid making the same mistakes they made.

Thought #5 – Sincere Interest and Genuine Curiosity – I’ve mentioned this before and cannot emphasize it enough. Questions about someone’s life should always be asked with sincere interest and genuine curiosity…and you cannot fake either! This is especially important when you ask difficult questions. The person you are asking will see this and will more likely respond favorably.

Be sure to give yourself a pat on the back when you ask those difficult questions. It’s a brave thing you are doing and you should reward yourself for doing so.

 

Who, What, When & Where – The Pre-Interview Questionnaire (PIQ) Form (continued)

We’ve gathered the Basic Interviewee Information and Early Life PIQ form facts in our last blog post http://tinyurl.com/3ufeauf . Now it’s time to continue chronologically through the interviewees’s life and gather the facts about Adult Years, Family Background and Specific Life Stories.

For the PIQ purposes, I consider Adult Years to begin after graduation from high school or at about age 18 (if there was no graduation for the interviewee). The first subject I include here is military history since many of my interviewees entered the US military after graduation from high school. To get what I want regarding military history, I developed a chart with columns that include date of service, country, branch (of military), rank attained, place stationed and primary assignments. This is an important category for your research for two reasons: 1) to properly ask questions about their military service, you must follow the chronologic and geographic journey taken; and 2) their stories of military experience are usually the periods of time in their lives they have talked least about with other family members and, therefore, are the most requested unknown life stories you will be asked to capture.

Adult Years continue with a chart of primary occupations,  a list of awards & rewards earned, a chart of health history, a list best friends as an adult and a list of current activities they do for fun. Be especially sensitive when approaching the subject of health history. If the interviewee has experienced some very “personal” health challenges in their history (whether involving physical on mental health), they may not want to address it. My position is that’s okay with me. I want the interviewee to maintain a comfort level with me in order to share what they want during the interview itself. If I push too hard gathering health history they are embarrassed about, I risk losing the trust I need during the interview…and that’s something I cannot afford to lose!

Family Background is the next PIQ section and includes the details you want about grandparents, parents, siblings, spouse(s), children and grandchildren. Keep in mind here when constructing your form that there is no family that is “typical”. Parents can be step-parents, adoptive parents or guardians. Children can be by birth, adopted, or step-children. Each atypical category creates great life questions to ask during the interview.

The last category of information I want to gather from the PIQ form is Specific Life Stories. For this I make a numbered list (1 to 15) with long blanks after each number. I ask the interviewee, “Are there any specific life stories you would like me to ask about during the interview that I will not have gathered from the facts I just filled in. For instance, you might be thinking, ‘Don’t forget to ask me about this particular Thanksgiving, last one before my mother died’ or ‘There’s a story I love telling about how I tormented my sister as a kid’.” You will probably have heard this info during many times earlier during the PIQ meeting, so be prepared during the meeting to “fast-forward” to this page often. This is the part of the PIQ form you may want to ask other family members to chime in on. Some of the “juiciest” stories come from this info.

In my next blog post, we’ll cover gathering photos, documents and mementos.