As a personal historian, we don’t often share about ourselves. Should we?
Today’s topic is sharing. But not about the clients sharing their story, but about how and when we share our own story. In episode 8, I warn personal historians away from sharing about themselves (and then tell you about how I broke that rule). In this episode, I share how a couple of recent incidents have made me rethink that.
What a conversation with a podcaster taught me
A couple weeks ago I had a long conversation with Jennifer Gardner, the host of the podcast Roamhowl. During our hour-long phone conversation, we explored whether I might be a good fit for her show. At quick glance, I met her criteria. Mid-life career change, check. Change spurred by painful life episode: check. Out-of-the-ordinary steps taken that might appeal to others: check. Extra dollop of hardship: check.
In other words, we talked about how I started The Story Scribe, my personal history business, when I was in the midst of a divorce, during a time when I was moving each week between the kids’ home and the secondary residence my ex-husband and I shared as part of our “nesting” arrangement. I told her about a lot of the hard stuff—some expected, some not—that happened during this dark period.
Our conversation is hard.
The conversation was full of starts and stops. Basically, she kept asking me to dig deeper, to paint the picture for her of what my life had been like. And I tried, but the deeper we got into it, the more panicky I felt. I was hitting up against a wall.
The more longer we talked, the more frantic I felt.
Words failed me. Over and over.
I’ve always considered myself to be pretty good at self-reflection, but it that’s what happens on the page, when I’m writing. As it turns out, I’m not that great at sharing in conversation.
It wasn’t just the facts she was going for; she was mining for my reactions, my feelings, my reflections and interpretations. I gave a little start when she asked me what I had learned from one particular experience. Hey! I thought. That’s my question!
Dive deep—but not on me!
When I interview people about their life, after someone tells me about something about a big event or incident, I regularly ask, “How did that make you feel?” or “What did you learn from that?” (The first question tends to be easier for women; men do better with the second one.) Sometimes you watch as the storyteller struggles to find words. Sometimes they never do.
I like to think that I show sensitivity during these times. But until my talk with Jennifer, until I was on the other side of the interview table, so to speak, I didn’t fully understand how hard it can be to share in a coherent way. Not just the facts, but the storyteller’s reactions to things.
A couple weeks ago, I had a client apologize for not “knowing” the answers to some of my questions. I hate that, because a storyteller should NEVER feel like they aren’t “doing” it right. Another client (both are men) asked me at the end of our iv if he was doing good. It was sweet but also a sign that I need to improve. I need to find a better way to convey that there is no right or wrong. I tell my storytellers many times not to worry about questions they can’t answer, that I’m just doing my thing of poking around to look for their stories, but I want to do a better job at convincing them.
So that’s one thing that my pre-interview interview with Jennifer taught me–an appreciation for how hard it can be to answer questions about your life. Not because you don’t want to, but because you haven’t maybe churned through it and made sense of it. So I think I’ll have more understanding when a storyteller doesn’t know how to talk about something. (As an aside, I also learned that nope, no way am I prepared to bare myself to the world on a podcast. No. No.)
Try this at home.
It might be a good exercise for any of us personal historians to put ourselves in this position, to experience interviewing from the other side. It’s a little like when they taser each other at police academy. You should know how your actions–or words, or questions–affect people.
Okay, here’s the second big thing, another piece of this topic of sharing and how hard it is, and how much of it we’re willing to do. Another lesson I learned this past week.
Part II: What the presentation taught me
A few days ago I gave a presentation to a group of seniors. I’d been asked to come talk at their meeting and tell them about perosnal history. I love doing this. I haven’t yet met a crowd that wasn’t fascinated by the idea of collecting stories and recording them; it’s almost universally appealing. So it’s not hard to make these talks fun and entertaining and informative for the groups. Maybe later I can do an episode about what one of these presentations looks like, because it can be a took in your marketing tool belt to have a standard speech to give when the local Rotary or church group calls up and invites you to talk.
Anyhow, this group was lovely from the minute I walked in. About 25 seniors, they’d been meeting for over 30 years, lots of good cameraderie. I change up my presentations slightly depending on who I’m speaking to, and for this one, I had chosen to play a short audio clip from an interview that I did several years ago, about a woman describing how a ghost appeared at her bedside when she was a little kid.
So one of the reasons I play it is because what started off as a kind of sweet memory actually pointed us in the direction of a family feud, so something much more serious and consequetial (the ghost looked just like the aunt who had fought with the girls’ mother). It’s a good illustration of being open to tangents and how the small stories can lead to much bigger ones.
Taking a risk, because I just couldn’t help myself
And that’s where I normally leave it during these presentations. But this time, I didn’t. Because as it happened, this presentation, which was taking place a month later than we had originally scheduled , fell on the one-year anniversary of my dad’s death. He died April 9, 2017. Nine months before that, my mom died. And Mom was the one telling the story about the ghost on the recording I had just played.
I don’t mention that to groups. I just don’t. It’s personal, and that’s not what I’m there for. I’m there to talk to them about perosnal history. Or if it’s writers, I’m there to teach them a little about doing perosnal history. Not talk about something really sad and personal, like my mom getting dementia and my dad taking care of her at home and getting so worn out that he dies nine months after she does, both while still in their 70s.
I don’t know, you guys. The mood changed as soon as I told them who was on the recording, and what had happened to her, and what had happened to my dad. And I think I even apologized and said I don’t normally do this, but man, the talk had fallen on exactly one year after Dad’s unexpected death.
There wasn’t anything I was trying to teach them, or convince them (except maybe, don’t wait to tell your story!), but wow, did they respond strongly. The presentation came to an end just after this–I was worried because I din’t want to leave them on a down note, but I had kind of blown that. And I can’t tell you how many of them got up and thanked me, and expressed this really heartfelt sympathy. One lady jumped out of her chair as I was walking out and asked if she could give me a hug. She knew how hard it was to lose a parent, she told me.
Anyhow, I guess my point is that, maybe sometimes it is good to share our own story. We can get so good at listening, that we start to forget how to talk, to express ourself.
Maybe it’s a vocational hazard that we can get so adept at active, empathetic listening, that we kind of forget how to be the talker, the one doing the sharing. And maybe, for no good pragmatic reason except that we’re all in this life together, maybe sometimes it’s okay to open up to our storytellers and potential clients and share some of our humanity with them. There are boundaries, professional boundaries that we dont’ want to cross, but maybe they’re not as set in stone as I’ve always thought.
Anyhow, I know this one isn’t full of practical advice. It’s more me kind of working through some things I’ve noticed and been thinking about. What are your thoughts on it? On sharing with clients about ourselves? Have you had any surprises that made you see interviewing in a different light? That made you realize something you didn’t know before?
I’d love to hear your take on it. Or, if you have any other ideas that could help the rest of us, or any questions about today’s episode, share them in the comments . And if today’s show was helpful, the best way you can return the favor is to leave us a review on iTunes. I’m Amy Woods Butler, personal historian, and your coach for building your own personal history business. Now go out and save someone’s story. And while you’re at it, tell a little of your own.
[Stick around at the end of the episode to hear an audio clip of my mom talking about the ghost.]