Who benefits from this process? Where is the value in this project?
Everybody wins here. Everyone involved in the process, from the interview subject, to the family watching the video, and even the interviewer, receives value from participating. This post explores the interview process from these different perspectives.
The Interview Subject
I can't know exactly what it's like to be the interviewee because I don't sit in that seat and I haven't lived their life. However, from sitting in the other seat, looking the interviewee in the eye and asking questions, spending hours editing the video, blending in their photos, and transcribing, I get a sense of how the project feels for them. No adjective adequately describes it, so I can only explain it through the process.
People being interviewed about their lives tend to take the process seriously. They know the interview will remain long after they are gone, it is a way to preserve stories that would otherwise be forgotten, and it connects them with future, even unborn, generations. Imagine a great-great granddaughter, whose mother is unborn or is a baby herself, watching your video thirty years from now. Heavy, right? What would you like her to know about you and her heritage? What would you say to her right now? This project provides that very opportunity. The gravity of the process can weigh upon you if you really think about it, and it is natural to want to get things "right." It is also natural for one to portray themselves in a positive light.
It is impossible to share every story of your life, and that of your family, in just a few hours. You have to be judicious in what you discuss, so you should avoid going down too many rabbit holes. For this reason, it is important that the interview subject spend a few days before the interview reflecting about their life, reviewing journals, yearbooks, photos, etc. Ultimately, this is a vehicle for people to connect with future generations in a lasting way.
This process likely stirs up several emotions at once. It can inspire nostalgia, joy, gratitude, dread, anger and regret all within minutes of each other. The interview subject is recalling memories and feelings that haven't been accessed in years or decades, and the process can be intense and cathartic. Having said that, I have personally witnessed a sense of relief and closure when the process is complete. There is a palpable sense of accomplishment in the air, not unlike completing an academic school year.
Here at Eternal Roots we give you the option of having copies of the package, both the disc and the transcript, delivered directly to the interview subject's family members (or other people of their choosing).
If they know this project is in the works, and that a copy of the disc is incoming, it will be received with great anticipation. This is an opportunity for family members to get to know a parent or grandparent in an intimate and lasting way. They get to hear about the interview subject's successes and failures, including questions they may have never thought to ask. This is also a vehicle for oral traditions to continue in a tangible medium. Not only can you get to know your parent/grandparent on a deeper level, you can share this with your own children, giving them a sense of belonging.
I ask the interview subject to go as far back in their ancestry as they can recall, then move forward to discuss their children and grandchildren. Hearing your parent/grandparent talk about you, coming from a place of love and pride, will make you feel connected. You get a sense of where you fit in, as the interview subject discusses their upbringing, and eventually discusses how you came into this world and your effect on them.
However, the impact on the viewer is unique to the viewer and their relationship with the interview subject. Regardless, you will come out of this process feeling more connected with the interview subject and your heritage.
The interviewer is the lucky one.
In researching his timeless book Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill interviewed 500 of the most successful people of the time. Their wisdom and insight filled the pages of this transcendent book. Do you think any of their mojo rubbed off on Napoleon? It's not feasible to image that process having no impact on him. One of my favorite personal development authors is Darren Hardy. He's the former Editor of Success magazine. Every month he had the privilege of interviewing titans of industry and entrepreneurs about their stories, and the interviews were published on CDs that shipped with every issue of the magazine. If I grew from listening to those CDs, how much did Darren grow from preparing for the interviews, conversing with the interview subjects and editing the interview? The interviewer must grow from this process, and if you are not growing from interviewing people, then you aren't paying attention.
Interviewing people about their lives is a privilege because I get to soak up the life lessons of people from many different walks of life, people with experiences and backgrounds different from my own, people who grew up in a completely different time. Talk to enough people about growing up during the Great Depression, and you will appreciate the things you take for granted. Talk to a couple dozen people about their successes, failures, inspirations, lessons, regrets and accomplishments, and watch what happens to you. Talk to enough people about their lives, and it will become a mirror for your own. Talk to people about their failures, then avoid the same mistakes. Talk to people about their successes, then emulate their activity. By interviewing others about their lives, you are the greatest beneficiary of all!
You've scheduled an interview and might feel some pressure to "perform" well. The thought of answering questions about your life under the gaze of a video camera could appear daunting. Here are some tips on how to be an ideal interview subject and enjoy the process.
We're all on borrowed time. Tomorrow isn't guaranteed for any of us. I don't open with this to be dark. My point is that if you are inspired to do something, you should not procrastinate. If you have any inclination whatsoever to interview a family member, don't waste time.
As I shared this project with friends during the early planning process, those who had already lost a parent responded similarly: "I wish we did something like that for my dad. If you were doing this while my dad was still here, I would have totally had you interview him." When our parents/grandparents are still here with us, life gets in the way and it's easy to take their existence for granted.
If you had intimate conversations with your parent about their life, you can't possibly remember everything. Even if your memory was excellent, those memories would still quickly fade between generations. I took a road trip with my father last summer, long before I conceived of this project. I seized the opportunity to ask probing questions about his life, subject matter I previously had not thought to ask or was not comfortable to ask. As much as I think I vividly recall the ride, I could not competently reproduce the conversation to my children. Even if I could, it would quickly (if not immediately) be forgotten by them. I could have taken notes, and even typed them up for posterity. However, notes taken by me, a third party, would still be diluted by my own perception of the conversation. My notes, or my memory, are no substitute for my kids watching my dad speak directly.
If you have half an inclination to record an interview with a loved one, even if you don't hire me, please do it! You do not want to experience the regret of missing that opportunity, especially if you have or will have children. Your children will benefit greatly from knowing their ancestry, even if they don't immediately appreciate the gift - they will one day. You will benefit from feeling closer to your parent and your heritage. The person being interviewed will benefit the most, as this is an act of validation, recognition, respect and love.
With a busy litigation practice, a wife, two kids, two cats, and a side business, I don't have much room for other ventures. My spare time is mostly consumed with children, and my only alone time is the occasional golf round and daily train commute to the office. I was not looking for another project. This project found me.
We had several family members over for Christmas dinner in 2015. This always leads to conversation about family history and people who are no longer with us. My 96-year old grandfather John was taking the train downtown to meet me for lunch the following week, and I decided to bring my video camera to work and interview him about his life. To help make this idea a reality, I blurted it out to the family. Just saying something out loud to others makes it real, right? However, some doubts and anxieties floated around in my head: Would he agree to participate? Would he let me videotape the interview? What should I ask? Should I defer this project to someone else in the family? I shut those voices down. I'm an attorney after all, I've been taking depositions the last 13 years!
The morning of Grandpa John's visit, I spent the train ride downtown scribbling questions in a notepad. Candidly, my notes were all over the place, jumping from subject matter to subject matter, with no transition. My only objective was to have some Q&A with Grandpa, ask him about things I didn't already know, and somehow share the video with the extended family. I met Grandpa at the station, I showed him my office, and we went to lunch. As the bill arrived, I swallowed hard and revealed my scheme. I asked Grandpa if I could interview him... with a video camera... and share it with the family. Grandpa seemed flattered. He's always asking about me and my life, and seldom volunteers information about himself.
We went up to my office, I told my assistant to hold any calls, and shut the door. I didn't own a tripod, so I set my video camera on my desk. Grandpa sat across the desk, and the camera pointed at his chest. I used a stack of pleading papers to elevate the camera a couple inches. Martin Scorsese I was not. I fired off my questions, and Grandpa was totally open. He shared everything, although he was a little blindsided by the process, as he did not have time to mentally prepare in advance. We had to cut it short at 30 minutes so he could catch his train home. I had no idea what to do with the footage.
The next day, after thinking over his answers, Grandpa said he wanted to start all over. He wanted to cover a lot more subject matter, and I wanted a chance to start fresh and to be more organized and methodical in my questioning, like when I take a deposition (minus the hostility of litigation, of course). This time I wrote a more formal, chronological outline, divided by subject matter. I wasn't even thinking about DVD chapters then, I just wanted it to flow. I figured it would be better to interview Grandpa in the comfort of his home, instead of my office surrounded by litigation debris.
We covered a lot of material, from growing up in the 1920s, losing his parents at a young age, training as a bomber pilot in WWII, his ascension in the lumber industry, family, marriages and life lessons. Grandpa even had me return for a third session. He clearly took the project seriously. I shared the experience on social media and it generated a very positive response. People said they should do this, they wish they did it when they had the chance, etc. One night while driving home, it spontaneously occurred to me that this is a service I could offer to the public. The idea hit me in a millisecond, and I physically startled. I spent the evening sketching out ideas and the next couple months putting the infrastructure in place.
It goes to show that the best ideas come when we aren't looking for them.
About the Blog
Here I write about the evolution of this project, the act of preserving life stories and personal development. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it.