Interviewing Basics

To write another’s story, you first have to capture it somehow.

Of course, you might already think that having heard it before you already know it, but if you write it from your head, it will be colored  by you and your quirks of memory. So if it is at all possible, you should interview the person you are seeking to write for in order to get their version of the story directly from them–as they want to tell it.

Naturally, sometimes it is not possible to do this. Specifically for someone who has departed or who is now not able to tell the story again for reasons of health. I think that if you choose to write those stories, it is a good idea to let the reader know that the story is recalled from memory–your memory. And strictly speaking, it will be your memoir.

Whenever you can, its best to sit down with a writing partner and capture the story directly from their memory. There are some essential tools for this trade. The recorder and the notebook. And you really need to have both.

Recorders are now digital. They are tiny and have huge capacities to record and store audio of any sort. Most of them have some mechanism to transfer the recorded file–usually an MP3 file–onto your computer. There you can use the computer’s media player to hear the interview. It’s best to use the computer’s player since the recording can easily be stopped, started, backed up, and so forth. When you’re listening to the recording later, and perhaps transcribing it into your writing, this sort of manipulation is convenient to be sure you get the details of what you’ve been told right.

But even though the recorder will capture 100% of what is said as you interview your writing partner, there is an awful lot of information that it does not capture. That is what the notebook is for. For instance the setting, which you may or may not want to include in your writing. Usually, that will have to do with what person you choose to write in–first person of third person. That decision is discussed in an older post here. But apart from the setting, there is other information that the recorder will not catch: the actions and reactions of your writing partner. Facial expressions, hand gestures, body language all can be written down for help in recalling the moment when you do the writing part of story capture. If you have never observed a person from this deliberate point of view, that’s quite normal. Your subconscious continually absorbs visual information as you have a discussion with others and it colors the meaning you take away from the conversation. None of that will be obvious when you listen to a recorded conversation, of course. Hence the importance of the notebook for capturing visual information and your interpretation of it in the moment of the interview. And of course you do not need to record the dialogue of this interview at all–that is what the digital recorder is for.

So you will need both a recorder and a notebook for gathering someone’s story. And really, the process of getting the story is the process of the interview itself.

I will have more to say on interview process later on. But before I do, it would be a good idea to have a read of a former post I’ve made here. It is on Listening, specifically, Empathic Listening.

About Richard Haverlack

Richard Haverlack has been writing the memoirs of hospice patients for more than eight years. He has recently written a book, A Memoir of Memoirs - Writing Stories Told at Life's End, which is about the poignant and enlightening experiences he's had in doing this work. Richard is a volunteer for the Good Samaritan Hospice near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He also is active in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institution at the University of Pittsburgh where he studies as well as teaches.

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