Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Nuances of Oral History

This post is by Tanya Lee Stone. She couldn't log in today so I'm posting it for her.

I recently had a long conversation with an old friend of mine from high school. A few things came up that I was surprised to hear. “I don’t remember it that way at all,” I said. She laughed. “Boy, for a writer, your memory is terrible,” she said.

The events we were talking about were things we lived through together, experienced deeply, and yet came away with different recollections. There were even details she recalled that I did not at all, and vice versa. As I am once again immersed in a project that relies heavily on oral histories, I began to look at my materials from a different angle. Many “what if” questions presented.

What if a subject is being interviewed too long after an event occurred? How does interviewing someone too soon impact the retelling? What about a subject’s mood on the day of an interview? Did they get enough sleep? Are they cranky? Is there more than one person involved? Do their stories mesh?

Of course, I have always factored these questions in when evaluating primary source materials, but somehow coming face to face with the flaws in my own memory has given me new insights into how I am feeling about the whole notion of history this morning.

I always tell kids that the best any writer can do is to be as responsible and accurate as humanly possible—but—and I stress this, human beings are imperfect. Therefore, all history is imperfect. Our job as nonfiction writers, reporters, journalists, is to do everything within our reach to get the best version of the truth straight that we can. Sometimes this means being perfectly up front with the reader. I did this in Almost Astronauts. There was a critical piece of information in that story, and the way the information came to me was just as important as the information itself. What to do? I incorporated the information about the source into the narrative and then I explained to the reader under exactly what circumstances I was given this information so that they could form their own opinions about it. Full disclosure. For me, that’s the way to go.

Stories will vary on any given memory of an experience when dealing with oral histories. This is natural. If you have seven different people involved with a historical event, you may be told seven slightly different versions of that event. Some details may not mesh. But common truths will emerge.

In the book I’m working on now, Courage Has No Color, there is one anecdote that has been told three times by the same subject. Even with one interviewee, some small details change from telling to telling. But what is most important to me is that the emotional truth of what happened to him stays the same. And that’s what I am always on the lookout for—the emotional truth of the story.

1 comment:

Jewel Sample said...

I encounter similar questions when I am collecting genealogical facts and personal histories. Like you, I have come away more often with knowing the memories are flawed, imperfect, but there is a place of good enough. I search for the common thread that holds the memory/event together and brings the story to life. I ask what if this story never gets told, is it important? What if I tell only parts of the story, will it change reader perspective or interpretation of the facts?
Thank you for sharing that it is okay to have imperfect stories as long as you have done everything within your power to collect the truth. Knowing when you have done all you can do to find the truth is the hard part for me.