StoryCorps

Stories, intimacy and honesty: my StoryCorps experience

IMG_0339Heard of StoryCorps? It’s an initiative that aims to capture and archive American’s stories. Story snippets are featured on NPR every Friday. StoryCorps won the TED Prize (a cool 1 million) in 2015. They have booths in Chicago, San Fran and Atlanta. A StoryCorps MobileBooth tours the country. They have a sleek app that turns your phone into a recording studio. It keeps getting bigger and better, but after making an appointment and experiencing the interview process itself, I’ve decided what makes StoryCorps so powerful is the intimacy of the whole thing.

So, what led me to StoryCorps on a sunny October afternoon in Chicago? It was a mix of a lot of things. Curiosity and intrigue were high on the list, as well as the novelty of my voice surviving for generations in the Library of Congress. But mainly, it was this: who wouldn’t want to spend 40 minutes in a cozy booth with someone you care about sharing a meaningful experience?

But I’m also hoping to bring StoryCorps in some form to my school, so my appointment was also part R&D. How would this process look with students? Can the StoryCorps experience be replicated? How would this fit into curriculum?

Here’s a rundown of my StoryCorps experience:

  1. I made my appointment online about 3 weeks in advance. StoryCorps Chicago is only open a few days a week, and I’m getting the impression that spots fill up fast. Book early.
  2. The morning of the appointment, Sheryl (my wife and interview partner) had some awesome Intelligentsia Coffee (not required, but certainly recommended) and game-planned our session. IMG_0336Our major question: what’s the theme? If you listen to StoryCorps on NPR, most snippets certainly revolve around specific topics (main page clips up at this moment include stories about lost love, working in a factory, and a plane hijacking). That isn’t to say you can’t just have a free-ranging interview – you absolutely can – but we wanted to narrow it down just a bit. We settled upon talking about marriage – how we got here, what were our expectations, stuff like that. We pulled questions from the StoryCorps Great Questions page and settled upon about 20 to work with. In my notebook I also jotted down stories I could tell while in the booth, just in case. Better to be over-prepared, right?IMG_0362
  3. We arrived at 11:30 for our 12:00 appointment. The StoryCorps room at the Chicago Cultural Center is super rad – modern gray/orange color scheme, photos of storytellers who have used the booth, quotes on the wall, and interactive touchscreens to listen to recent stories featured on NPR. We scoped out the room for a bit and then relaxed on a comfy sofa.
  4. Anne – our StoryCorps facilitator – met us about 11:45. We completed some basic paperwork, and Anne gave us a rundown of the process. Sheryl and I would have a 40-minute conversation in the StoryCorps booth – and we officially had to designate our roles as either interviewer or storyteller. Anne said most conversations are pretty free-wheeling and two-sided, but the designation had to take place (officially, I was the storyteller). Anne’s role was to record our conversation, take notes, and maybe even interject with a question of her own if she felt something needed more follow-up. But in general, we were supposed to pretend that she wasn’t there. 40 minutes was the max, but it was cool if we ended sooner. When we were done, Sheryl and I were to thank each other, as is customary at the end of StoryCorps interviews.
  5. The three of us entered the famous booth. The thing looks really state-of-the-art on the outside, and the interior is a cozy, little soundproof space with a table, two chairs, a box of tissues (Anne said many participants cry…more on that later), recording equipment and mounted microphones. Anne turned down the lights, set the recording levels, told us she’d flash ten fingers at us when there were ten minutes remaining, and we were off.IMG_0347
  6. I loved the process. It was moving and powerful, and a big part of that was the cozy space and professional feel. It just felt really important – sitting two feet across from my wife, looking into her eyes – it was very intimate, which I think coaxes more honesty, emotion and thoughtfulness out of StoryCorps participants. I never even noticed Anne sitting an arm’s-reach away taking notes and checking the sound levels….it felt like it was just me and Sheryl. The 40 minutes flew by. We probably only used 5 or 6 of our questions. The rest were follow-ups, tangents and natural digressions. Tears were shed. Sheryl was a mess by the end, and yeah, I cried too.  Here’s a clip of our interview, where Sheryl and I discuss the idea of soulmates and how I thought the universe was trying to put us together.
  7. We finished with photos. Anne snapped our pictures inside the booth – one together and then a solo pic of each of us – (Sheryl was super red-eyed from the crying and wished we’d taken the pics before the experience) – we signed release waivers for NPR and the Library of Congress, and we received a CD of our interview.IMG_0364

I loved it. StoryCorps exceeded my expectations, and I want to do it again. And it was more than just feeling that connection in the booth. It just felt important. Like our voices would live on, and maybe we’ll play it for our kids one day and they’ll get a very honest look into the lives of their parents. And I thought about using this at my school. The potential is unreal: capturing student voice and ideas (TED-Ed Club?), students interviewing grandparents, using a StoryCorps experience as a way to build empathy and understanding amongst the student body, giving a platform to the underrepresented, and maybe forging a partnership with the local historical society and helping to build an archive of community stories. And that’s just off the top of my head.

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The StoryCorps app gives everyone a chance to do this at home, school, Starbucks, anywhere. But as I’m reflecting about my experience, I cannot stress enough how important the environment is for the process. The tight space, the soft lighting, the professional mics – it all adds up. If I do something at my school, I’d love a small, dedicated space to recreate the experience. Make it “appointment television,” as my colleague Joe puts it.

So there it is. Me, Sheryl, and StoryCorps. If you’re reading this, find someone you care about or someone you think deserves to have their story heard. Or maybe it’s your story. Make an appointment. Or if you aren’t near a booth, set up an intimate space, download the app, decide on some questions, and give it a go. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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