As we said in our last blog post, we’re going to give you some tips on how to study history from “My History is America’s History” in the next few postings. The first tip is “Keep a Journal”. Now I’ll admit, I don’t do that—never have and it’s doubtful I ever will. But…I do keep scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about our family, historical events we’ve participated in (such as campaigning for Bob Kerrey when he ran for Senate in Nebraska) and also a journal-like book of my favorite quotes.
Someone once told me it’s a good exercise to write your own obituary as you’d like it to read—and then to go out and live that life. Pretty good advice, actually, but that’s a blog post for my personal blog and not this one.
I do have a “kit” that I bought one year for my birthday on how to write your autobiography. It’s a box of cards, each with a question that can lead you to record your life. Although “The Autobiography Box” by Brian Bouldrey is billed as a “step by step kit for examining the life worth living”, it can also be adapted for your use in recording your personal history.
Here are some examples:
What was your first day of middle school (or for a lot of us--junior high) like? And, I would add, what was the world like at that time?
Do you recall taking a strong political position?
Is there a piece of music that reminds you of a particular time and place in your life? If you’re a “boomer”, that should be easy—unless you’re David Crosby who once said that if you can remember the sixties you weren’t there.
Write about the first time you went away from home alone.
One year for Christmas, I got our son’s grandparents each a book in which to record recollections of their lives. The books were pretty nifty because they had questions to prompt short writings and spots in which to glue old photos. Unfortunately, two of those grandparents died without completing the books and one now has Alzheimer’s. I should have insisted that they complete those books, or at least work on them, when they were young enough to have some fun doing it. But as with many things, we all got busy and now it’s too late.
If you have the inclination, and a willing subject, “My History is America’s History” suggests recording an interview with a family member about an event in his/her life that is also a piece of major American history. I remember the day I told our executive director and my office mate about John Kennedy’s assassination and how we were dismissed early from school with no explanation. Our town was so quiet as I walked home and the only thing I could think was that we had gone to war. Since I’m old enough to be the mother of either of them, this was a piece of history I’m sure neither had ever thought about—kids being dismissed from school after news reports of the President’s death started rolling in and how the American populace responded.
Here are some tips for a good interview:
- Pick a good candidate—someone you’re comfortable with and, I would add, likes to talk…but not too much!
- Research the time period and your subject as this will help you formulate questions.
- Give your subject plenty of time to think about what they are going to say
- Make sure your recording device functions and functions well and that you have a good microphone and plenty of batteries.
- Try to focus the interview on one facet of history—for example the Vietnam War or Nixon’s resignation (neither of which I will ever forget).
- Think about what you really want to know.
- Keep your questions broad enough for your subject to have some flexibility.
- Keep the questions open ended to provide your subject room to talk.
- Then sit back and LISTEN.
- Take a few notes so you can ask good follow up questions.
- Don’t pry into personal issues.
- Ask difficult questions, if you need to, but be respectful.
- Make sure you’ve covered everything you wanted to.
- But don’t go on too long.
- Label your tape so it doesn’t get lost and review it as soon as possible after the interview.
- Transcriptions are worth the time and investment.
- Index the tape if possible with key topics and your notes.
- Copy of the tape and send it along with a thank you to your subject.
- A release form, even from a family member, is a good idea.