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Does everyone have a story to tell?

Martin Luther King, Hurricane Katrina, VE Day in New York

By Simon Garfield

Simon Garfield

Whether it's losing your whole family in a violent hurricane or spending your life as a bounty hunter, it could be that everyone has a story to tell. A massive project plans to gather all those stories in one place.

"I can't even begin to tell you the misery of rain," says George Hill to a friend sitting opposite him. "It was misery beyond belief."

Hill was homeless for more than a decade, and several years after finding shelter he told his tale of sorrow and redemption to StoryCorps, an oral history project in the US with an ambitious aim to find out who we really are.

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In this way he became part of a phenomenon - since 2003 about 35,000 people have also shared their experiences.

It used to be said that we all have a novel inside us. That may or may not be true. But we probably do all have stories of value to others, which may explain the great boom in local oral history societies and attempts to catalogue our lives in gigabytes.

Heartrending tales

From St Andrews to St Ives, it is hard to pass a town hall these days without an invitation to share one's recollections of a first school or the last war. But StoryCorps is something else, part national archive, part travelling memory show. It is oral history for the modern age - branded, trademarked, occasionally weepy and confessional, often compellingly addictive.

Its website carries many of the most significant moments in recent American history. There are memories of Martin Luther King and Hurricane Katrina, stories of immigration and gay men coming out to their parents, heartrending tales of public and private depressions. Many of them are funny, and many end in tears. None are boring.

StoryCorps founder David Isay has been keen on recording real lives since he was a teenager, beginning, as most of us do, with family.

As his horizons widened he began to appreciate that the lives of "ordinary" people may be just as interesting, and often more so, than the famous and the celebrated.

StoryCorps began with the simple invitation to "tell me about your life", and it offered an alluring venue for doing this, a StoryBooth sited in New York's Grand Central Terminal.

Volunteers were encouraged to enter the booth with a friend or relative, establishing a sense of intimacy that would be difficult to achieve if they were talking to a stranger. Hearing their stories afterwards, a listener assumes the role of eavesdropper.

The StoryBooth in New York City has relocated, and it has been augmented by trailers travelling the country in search of more revelations.

The recordings are transferred to two CDs. One goes home with the participants, one remains with StoryCorps and makes its way to a permanent repository at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. The best stories are also edited and broadcast on National Public Radio.

Isay has many predecessors, most famously Studs Terkel, who was a great StoryCorps supporter before his death last year. He has several imitators, other organisations in the UK and elsewhere who are trying to achieve similar results with a lower profile.

He also has a fair number of critics in the academic world who feel his work is more entertainment than serious endeavour, mocking the soapy title of StoryCorps' recent book of collected stories, Listening Is An Act of Love.

Its value to its participants is unmissable. They find a way to talk of things they have seldom mentioned before, with the experience almost constituting therapy. Whether one wishes to share these revelations with a potential worldwide audience of millions is another question altogether.

Simon Garfield is the author of Our Hidden Lives, about the 1930s mass observation project.


Below is a selection of your comments.

It is not mere entertainment, but rather priceless moments of history recited through raw human emotion - the art of storytelling at its humblest.
Lucinda, Virgin British Islands

This is so true. Other people's lives are fascinating, as obituaries often tell us. As a local councillor in south London for 15 years, I have been invited into the homes and lives of thousands of people - mostly by people with problems so bad that they have felt compelled to contact their councillor, but sometimes just by people whose door you've knocked on, hoping they will tell you they're going to vote for you at the next election. Behind those matchy-matchy rows of Victorian terraced houses and balconies of council blocks, there are people who I might never have had the chance to meet in other circumstances. Their stories are sad, tragic, courageous, uplifting, funny, incredible - and every one is unique.
Ruth, London

This reminds me in some ways of the folk collectors of the 19th Century, who we have to thank for preserving a rich cultural heritage of community song and dance that was in danger of being lost. These sort of projects are so important for keeping touch with our roots and history - I would say more so than official history books and documents. The history of any country or any event is in the people that experience it first hand.
Liz, Reading, UK

I have been collecting people's stories but in a much smaller way for a number of years - it's real, it's what life is all about.
Bertie Somme, Molde, Norway

Studs Terkel would have loved this.
Wendy Kendrick, Evanston, IL

The Oral History Society is the leading charity for oral history in the UK and can offer support and information.
Shelley Trower, Plymouth



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