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Oral and Written Stories

Oral and Written Stories

     As a child, I spent hours imagining the life in my Grandpa’s stories--life in Chicago in the 1920s and ‘30s. There were epic tales of his dad selling peanuts at Wrigley Field, a brother losing an arm catching a ride on a street car, and Grandpa accidentally ending up in an orphanage with his older sister. As he got older, he pursued professional roller skating, lost the love of his life to meningitis, moved furniture for the mob, and eventually found forever happiness with my Grandma.

    My grandpa stopped telling me stories when I was a late teen, a cruel casualty of Alzheimer's. He passed away my first year of college, nearly two decades ago, and yet not a family gathering takes place without bringing up Grandpa and his adventures. His stories that I retell flow right into my mom and uncle sharing their favorites, each of us adding details to the others’ version.

  The experiences that shaped my Grandpa became woven into our own identities, but I fear that as we age, those stories will disappear. As the years go by, certain details have already been forgotten or confused, and none of us can quite capture his voice or humor.

    A few years after I lost my grandpa, I was fortunate enough to intern at the Chicago History Museum. There I was introduced to the works of Studs Terkel, an acclaimed author known for capturing oral histories of everyday people, like my grandpa, in a written form that could be passed on for generations. His work sparked my interest in oral and written stories, and the necessity to find ways to combine the two.

    I find real beauty in the art of oral storytelling--the way the memory of the story comes to the teller in an organic way, inspired by a present day moment, or perhaps by someone else’s tale. The way their voice changes as the scene replays in their head and the emotions come back. The random details and side stories that get woven in, completely unrelated to the main story, yet adding undescribable richness. The ability to interrupt, ask questions, press further for meaning, explanation, relevance.

    The older I get though, the more I regret not capturing my grandfather’s history when I had the chance. I wish that he’d kept a journal or written down his adventures so that I could revisit them now, when I am missing his guidance and wisdom. I wish I had something concrete to hold.

  Writing down memories takes time, revisions, and has it’s own set of obstacles. When writing, as opposed to oral storytelling, we tend to filter ourselves more, putting greater thought into how readers will perceive us, and skipping those crucial moments that, while important in shaping us, evoke less than pleasant memories.

    It’s this passion for combining the two that makes me appreciate what storieChild is trying to accomplish. Having a written book that can be passed down for generations is invaluable, but so are the conversations and other stories that are told as the book is read.

    What do you think? Are there other aspects of oral vs written stories that I missed? Is one better than the other? I’d love to keep the conversation going at kara@storiechild.com . And if you get a chance, http://studsterkel.wfmt.com/ features more abut Studs Terkel, a Chicago legend who passed away in 2008.