My family reunion is this weekend. Sadly, I’m not able to be there this year (Hi, family! Love you! Air hugs!). It’s a huge family, probably two hundred folks or so. Not Dugger huge, but former Catholic huge, which is pretty damn huge by normal human standards. And we’re Hawaiian. Hawaiians don’t “chat” or “visit” or “catch up.” We “talk story,” a figure of speech that I absolutely love. Very direct and to the point, Hawaiians. Probably a result of only having thirteen letters. The problem with having such a big family, though, is that I don’t get to talk story with all of them. There are far too many who I don’t know at all, and by this point we’ve grown into such a many-headed beast that I can’t even keep straight whose kids or spouses are whose anymore. Not to mention that I live so far away, which is a whole other bucket of bullshit.
Anyway, the other day I listened to a TED Radio Hour episode with Dave Isay, the guy who started StoryCorps, and I honestly think he’s a genius. If you’ve ever heard StoryCorps, it was most likely a snippet on NPR. But if you’re unfamiliar, the basic idea is that two people sit down in a recording booth and interview each other. The interviews are all archived in the Library of Congress and have become the largest collection of recorded human voices. There’s also a podcast, if you’re interested, but both it and the pieces aired on the radio are just short excerpts from each interview. Some of them are funny, some are mundane, some are baffling, some are gut-wrenching. Which, I suppose, is true of all conversation. So why are interviews different?
I listen to a shit ton of podcasts. Like, I probably spend five or six hours a day listening to podcasts. This may be an actual sickness. Some of my very favorites are interview style, with interesting people in both chairs. But here’s the thing about StoryCorps: the whole point is that everyone is interesting. We forget that, I think, obsessed as we are with celebrity and gossip and commentary and punditry. I may have some weird social anxiety stuff and prefer to watch people over talking to them, but I know that every single person has at least one interesting story (except babies, babies are pretty boring). How simple to just ask for those stories. How elegant. And potentially really important. Like Isay says in his TED Talk, the older generations will be gone one day but we can keep what they have to say forever. And some people don’t get to tell their stories. Either they’re part of a marginalized community that nobody cares about (prison, retirement home, freaky cult, etc), or simply, and perhaps more sadly, no one ever asks.
For example, recently one of my cousins was talking to one of my aunts and my aunt said something about the time when my mother lived in Iran. My cousin had no idea that my mom had lived in Iran. Or Singapore. Or Scotland. Or any of the other weird things my mom has done. She’s an interesting lady, but it had never come up, I guess. Not that I think a sit-down interview that’s being recorded would necessarily bring any of that to light, but there’s something about a microphone that flips a switch in our brains and eliminates the need for chit chat. Frankly, I’ve always sucked at chit chat. It’s kind of a chicken-or-egg thing with the social anxiety. Obviously, being a writer and an eater of books, story is important to me. Some people probably don’t give a shit what regular folks have to say. But we should always remember that those among us who are extraordinary are only made so by their stories. And sometimes we need to hear the story to see that they’re extraordinary, if they’re hiding in plain sight, masquerading as normal. Things like StoryCorps (and, in a slightly different format, Humans of New York) are making it easier for us to see the amazing stuff about each other that we might have missed.
And now StoryCorps has put out a smartphone app so anyone can record an interview and upload it to the collection without having to go to a sound studio. This is going to change the game. Of course I thought of my giant, wacky family when I heard about this thing. Wouldn’t it be incredible to get interviews from all two-hundred-something members of one family? What a great artifact, not only for us to have for ourselves, but as a weird little slice of this whole human story? I think I’m going to make it a project for the next family reunion. Get some quality microphones and set up a quiet place, have everyone pair off with a family member who they don’t know very well (or who they know has a good story they want on record). It could be so fun.
More to the point, it could be really important as our old folks get older and eventually leave us. We lost one of my uncles a few years ago (in a motorcycle accident – SHARE THE ROAD!), and I’m sad to say that I didn’t know him very well. I would have loved to hear his stories, but now I only get to hear stories about him. Same with all four of my grandparents. And, it’s funny, when my dad died the first thing I forgot was what his voice sounded like. I don’t think I have any recordings of him just talking, and certainly not singing or laughing, although those are the three things I remember him doing the most (when I could hear him over his tractor). We mythologize the dead in our minds, but for whatever reason, in my head they’re silent. Static. Makes me sad.
There’s a strange linguistic thing that happens in groups of people – families, friends, coworkers, whatever – called liminal language. It’s a sort of shorthand specific to that group, very referential, and it binds the group together. So, for example, if I walk into my little sister’s house and say “Hello, meteor!” there’s a very good chance that either she or her mate will say “Aaaah! The atmosphere!”. Nobody else gets that, but there’s a story there. A dumb story, granted, but a story. A series of events and experiences distilled down to four words in a silly accent. I’m endlessly fascinated by the brain’s ability to do this. Memory, language, representation and reference – these are stories. Stories inside stories inside stories. Everything is story, inescapable and infinite and all-consuming. I see it everywhere, like the fucking Matrix.
And I could tell you that the written word and the spoken word are equals in our efforts to preserve story, but they’re just not. Reading and listening happen in different parts of the brain using different neurochemical whatsits. This is why I maintain that one should never read the plays of Shakespeare, but should see them onstage whenever possible. They weren’t meant to be read off of a dead page in cold ink, and doing so turns them into a wholly different creature. On a similar note (but in no way trying to compare myself to Shakespeare), it’s interesting that people who know me say I write like I talk. I think this is true, for the most part. However, when I was younger I helped out occasionally with producing my older sister’s radio show and would sometimes have to speak on-air (notice I say “have to” and not “get to”). She told me that I sound like a dead fish, that my voice only works when someone is looking at me. This is also true. My voice is rather monotone, but I talk with my hands a lot and pull tons of stupid faces. I imagine that talking on the phone with me is much like reading my writing – if you know me, you can see me saying it. If not? Potential dead fishness. This is why I blog instead of podcasting, and why recording people’s stories can be so much more impactful than writing them down. The medium does make a difference.
Anyway, check out StoryCorps. It’s a hell of a rabbithole to get stuck in. More importantly, even if you don’t record them, ask people to tell you their stories. People you love, people you hate, people you don’t know. It’s an incredible moment of human connection, some serious brain-on-brain action. Talk story. It’s all we are.