Since 2003, David Isay has been on a mission. In October of that year, he partnered with the legendary author and archivist Studs Terkel to launch a project called StoryCorps. His goal? To prove that two people, 40 minutes, and a recording booth “could transform lives.” They set up in New York’s Grand Central Station to collect real-life stories. Since then, StoryCorps has captured more than 50,000 interviews involving 90,000 people. Many of the stories have been broadcast on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and they are all housed in the Library of Congress. Along the way, Isay has also collected six Peabody awards and a MacArthur genius grant.
So, clearly, someone is listening.
An important differentiation between StoryCorps and other oral history initiatives is that these interviews are not conducted by journalists, academics, or historians. Instead, Isay sees the value in one ordinary person asking questions of someone important in his or her life. So, in essence, there are two subjects in every interview, and often the questions asked are as telling as the answers gleaned. In addition to the ongoing program (there are booths set up in Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco, as well as a mobile one that travels throughout the country), Isay has overseen special, focused initiatives in collaboration with nonprofits. These include a current project with post-9/11 veterans and military families, and interviews with different communities like specific ethnic groups, teachers, and senior citizens. The next one planned is entitled Out Loud and will focus on the LGBT community, with an emphasis on people who live outside the gay meccas of New York and San Francisco.
Isay calls his recordings “poems of the human voice.”
A new book, Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps, marks the movement’s milestone anniversary. Ties That Bind is the fourth collection, and as the title promises, it illuminates close relationships that sometimes surprise (and often delight) the reader. The book is broken into three parts: “We Saved Each Other,” “Been Through Battles,” and “Two Sides of the Same Heart.”
Stories include relationships we might expect: two best friends, a working-class father determined to send his son to college, adoptive parents and the child they raised, a teacher and a student. The fact that these are more conventional doesn’t diminish the love and connection that are communicated. As in all the StoryCorps interviews, there’s a candor and “truthiness” that humbles us, no matter how humble the storyteller’s situation.
But Ties That Bind also includes some fairly remarkable connections between people. There’s a grandmother who explains how her life changed when she came out at the age of 40. There are a mother and daughter, serving together in Iraq. There are two siblings, one transgender and one gay; a man who finds a best friend in his ex-wife’s new husband; a man and his girlfriend who’s a marathoner with short-term memory loss; and a haunting story about a woman who comes to forgive—and love—the incarcerated man who killed her only child.
These storytellers are not accomplished writers. Many are uneducated. Yet their words are as interesting and compelling as anything you might find in a novel. Each interview lasts only a few pages and, in each case, there’s a photo of the couple at the end. Isay was smart to focus on words first, pictures second. We learn about these people through their stories, we hear their hearts and souls, and only then do we get to see them. Sometimes the pictures are a surprise. Sometimes they make us question assumptions we made.
More than anything else, Ties That Bind, like the StoryCorps project as a whole, is an affirmation of the human experience. Whether a person talks about a truly extraordinary event or a seemingly everyday occurrence, the story is given power and presence through the process. In interviews, Isay tells of one participant several years ago, an indigent man living in a “chicken wire cubicle” in New York’s Bowery (before it became chic). When he was shown the galley of a book his story was to appear in, the man grabbed it and shouted, “I exist! I exist!”
Most of us have more proof of existence in our lives than this man. We have jobs and homes and families; we have tangible material goods (probably more than we need). Yet we still want, need, feel compelled to tell our stories. Women have kept journals for centuries. And, according to the Pew Research Center, blogging now provides an outlet (and, in some cases, a source of revenue) for 18.9 million women.
In the past week, two different women from two different areas of my own life (a neighbor and a former colleague) asked to meet with me. Both wanted to talk to me about a writing project they’ve undertaken. Although very different individuals, each woman had a story to tell. At this point, halfway through our lives (optimistically speaking), we all want validation.
Finishing Ties That Bind made me simultaneously sad and inspired. I was sad because I didn’t think to interview my father (or more recently, my father-in-law). What an incredible legacy that would have been for my daughter (and for her daughters and theirs)! At the same time, I was determined to learn more about StoryCorps.
Turns out, it was easier than I expected. On their website, www.storycorps.org, you can schedule an official interview or design a do-it-yourself experience with the help of their “Great Questions” lists. There are also dozens of stories that you can listen to online.
Whether you choose to read the book or browse the website, you’ll agree with David Isay and his team. We all have stories to tell.