Writing that gives us insight into the writer’s life and emotions makes a personal story come alive.
And the techniques we learn from releasing our own stories can be used in a variety of writing situations and genres: memoir, self-help, how-to, anecdotes for a variety of non-fiction projects, blogging and even fiction.
In Exercise 1: Time Travel we used introspective methods to extract life and colour from our memories.
Exercise 2: The Interview is a completely different approach. This time, you ask someone to assist you by asking questions (either in person or using something like Skype), and you record the conversation for later review. It’s similar to techniques I’ve used myself a number of times over the years, when helping authors bring a dry or incomplete story to life.
You could use one exercise if the other one fails or doesn’t appeal, or you might find it interesting to put one event in your life through both exercises. Feel free to work out a plan that suits you and your needs.
What you’ll need for Exercise 2: The Interview
A quiet place where you won’t be interrupted or distracted.
- Beware of background noise. It can make it hard to hear your voices on the recording.
- Choose somewhere that it will be comfortable for you both to sit fairly close to each other. You get better sound quality if you are closer together. A table between you is often a good idea, so that you can rest your recorder on it, as well as any notes you may have. I’ve found a high table is usually better than a coffee table.
- It’s a good idea to have water on hand too — you’ll both get very dry with all that talking!
- If you are doing the interview via Skype, remember to choose a time of day when your house is quiet and peaceful, or if you have a laptop, take it somewhere suitable.
A voice recorder of some kind.
- It could be your smartphone, or that dictaphone gathering dust at the office (remember them??), or even an old cassette deck. The tech doesn’t matter. It just needs to record clearly enough that you can hear it when you play it back.
- If you do the interview on Skype instead of in person, there are a variety of ways to record it (but make sure you have the other person’s permission to record their voice, it’s a legal requirement in many places!)
- Whatever recording device you use, be sure to test it in advance to make sure it’s working. And then test it again when you begin your interview — I always record a little then stop it and play it back just to check. And then make adjustments for how far from your mouths it needs to be, etc.
- Have you got enough batteries? A long enough power cord? Enough recording tape, or hard drive space? (This audio recording calculator can help you figure out how many GB you’ll need on your computer or smartphone for a certain length of interview.)
A willing volunteer to interview you.
- They could be from among your friends or family, or from your writing group, or a student, or an amateur historian — open your mind to think of who might be good at asking questions, a naturally curious and interested person, perhaps someone who has already expressed interest in your story… but don’t put too much pressure on them to do an “excellent interview”.
- Ideally they haven’t heard the story you’re about to tell, and it’s even better if they don’t know any of the people in it. But don’t panic if you can’t find someone who fits that description… work with what you’ve got.
- Ideally they are in the demographic (age, gender etc) of your target reader, because they’ll have similar questions, especially about cultural or historical references. But again, don’t stress if you can’t find someone who matches it exactly.
They are going to “interview” you, but set their minds at rest — it will be very informal.
- Encourage your volunteer to ask as many questions as they want.
- Tell them you want them to help you to describe everything fully, so they can really see in their mind’s eye the locations and people and events you are talking about. If something’s not clear, they need to ask you some more questions.
- Start telling them one of your stories. It might be a story that’s featuring in your memoir, an anecdote for your non-fiction book, or if you’re writing a novel, it might be something that happened to you that you’re going to rework into a fictional event.
- Try to show your interviewer what it was really like to be there.
- Often we forget to describe familiar people and places. We know them so well that we forget our reader doesn’t know what they look or sound like! Try to help your interviewer to see, hear and experience the people and places in your story.
- It’s often effective to describe them in terms of what they looked and sounded and seemed like TO YOU. For example, the fact that the man was very tall could become more powerful if you say you only came up to his armpit! Put it in the context of You.
- Describe your emotions. Were you happy, sad, angry, frightened, bored? If so, what physiological symptoms did you experience? Would other people have been able to tell how you felt? Why and how? Or, why not?
- What were the emotions of the other people present? How do you know that? Are you sure?
- Don’t forget to explain and describe anything that might be confusing to a reader older or younger than you are, due to cultural, technical or historical references.
- Don’t self-edit. You don’t need to be eloquent. You don’t need to be grammatical. You don’t need to be inspiring. Relax.
- Just get as deeply as you can into what happened, and record it all, so that you can harvest details and facts and emotions and observations to make your narrative come alive.
Cherry-picking evocative details out of your recording to add to a story is one obvious way to make use of this interview, but it’s not the only possible benefit. You may find that a time of reflection on the whole process will teach you surprising things about yourself as a writer and storyteller.
- Allow plenty of time to listen to your recording. You might want to listen to it several times over, perhaps once all the way through, and then stopping and starting as you take time to consider what you’re discovering in each section.
- You might find it helpful to transcribe the recording in full, or you might prefer to jot notes, and then capture some sections word-for-word as you notice interesting word choices. See what works for you.
- What speech patterns do you notice? If you couldn’t hear inflection, would the word choice communicate emotion all by itself? Did your word choice change when you felt shy or lacked confidence? What about as you became more animated?
- Which questions did you love answering? Why do you think that was? Were they just easier, or did they tap into something special?
- Which questions did you wish your interviewer hadn’t asked? Why? Were they simply irrelevant or irritating (it can happen!), or might they point towards something you need to confront?
- Which questions do you wish you’d been asked? Would you like to write or record an answer to them now, while the thought is fresh?
Have you used an interview technique before to extract Story from your memory? What did you like about it? What might have worked better if you’d done it another way?
Featured image via Bigstock/Kzenon