I believe the best stories tell themselves. Perhaps that’s because I’m aware of and comfortable with my own agency. And I tend to grant that same awareness and comfort to those with whom I interact. But if I sense they might not possess that kind of awareness and comfort, I try to give it to them, to put them at ease, to get them talking.
Periodically, I interview people — my clients, customers of my clients, and others. I frequently unnerve them because I won’t give them questions ahead of the interview. I don’t want them thinking about questions. I don’t want them preoccupied with thoughts of right or wrong answers. I don’t want anything about the interview to sound canned or rehearsed. Rather, I just want to connect. I want to engage. I want to hear the person’s story, spontaneously told. I want to hear the person’s voice, not just the sound of her talking. I want to find out what lights him up.
Some years ago, I wrote the featured interview in each edition of the monthly newsletter published by the New England Chapter of the American Public Works Association. It was a sweet gig. I’d travel to the city or town in which the interview subject was the Director of Public Works. The Chapter would pick up the tab for dinner I shared with each Director. And we’d talk.
On one occasion, I was sent to Concord, New Hampshire, to interview a gentleman named Dick Perkins. He greeted me cordially and was a willing and congenial participant in the conversation. But his story, all the details he shared with me notwithstanding, was struggling to come out. And then it happened: I don’t recall if I said something about fireworks or if I said something that reminded him of fireworks, but he suddenly lit up (pun fully intended).
As it turned out, aside from his wife and family, there were two other passions in Dick Perkins’ life. (Most of us consider ourselves lucky to have one of which we can be sure and from which we can derive fulfillment.) Both derived from his boyhood. First, Dick had recently passed the certification course to become a member of the Pyrotechnics Guild International. Subsequently, as a member of the New Hampshire Pyrotechnics Association, he’d worked on the 1998 Independence Day celebration in Concord. He’d worked with the Atlas Company on the Washington Monument show the two previous years and attended the U.S. Pyrotechnics Association National Convention in Gillette, Wyoming.
Dick was also a lifelong collector of baseball cards. We’re not talking dabbler here. He set up his own booth at 12 shows a year or more. He owned a Hank Aaron rookie card. And he (modestly, of course) estimated the value of his collection to be “in the low six figures”. If you’re anything like me, there are no low six figures. But the only things that exceeded the nonchalance with which Dick was fulfilling his boyhood dreams were his happiness in every moment and his willingness to share that happiness.
It was just a matter of getting his story to tell itself.
And so it was that my colleagues and I in our writing workshop, Finding Your Voice — Maribel Cardez, Yvonne Jones, and Tom Dietzler (we were sans Laura Staley this time out) — gathered last week to begin plotting the comic strip we’re going to create. More accurately, that was the plan, such as it was. But there were stories to be told.
So, we shared. We shared stories about families and funerals, firings and frustrations, feats and feelings, and more. And every story that told itself drew us closer to each other.
If you’re willing to listen, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the number of stories you’ll hear telling themselves.
I tell myself to listen with affection to anyone who talks to me … This person is showing me his soul. It is a little dry and meager and full of grinding talk, just now, but presently he will begin to think … He will show his true self. Then he will be wonderfully alive. (Dr. Karl Menninger)