The Final Destination
Since I have started this project, and especially lately, I am frequently asked about what the final product will be. Initially I told people that I wanted to locate an archive or library to deposit them. This made sense (and still does) because libraries and archives are the natural home for oral history interviews; they are the best equipped for handling preservation, transcription, and access. Then, somewhere along the way in my travels, I think it was at Leo Adams’ house, people began suggesting a that the final product would be a book (a suggestion that terrifies me by the way) and after a while I found myself not disagreeing or correcting people. However, this is mostly because I just didn’t know. There are pros and cons to both options and I am weighing out each. In the meantime, I am focusing on the journey (collecting and processing interviews) rather than the destination.
As I interviewed artists I have been honest and told them I don’t know what the final product will be. Thus far, no one has seemed bothered by this and I have been both stunned and eternally grateful for their willingness to still entrust their story with me - and let me stumble around while I learn.
Can you call it a “curve” when it’s vertical?
I am new to the world of oral history and interviewing. This is one of the reasons I started this project - I wanted interview experience. So I threw myself into the deep end of the pool by traveling 10,000 miles to collect over 35 hours of interviews in 3 months. I added to the already steep (almost vertical) learning curve by trying to learn audio editing (right now I know enough to be dangerous), how to record the best sound, and really, I’m still learning how to operate my fancy Zoom H5 recorder to its fullest potential. It all makes me long for the old-fashioned tape recorder - you know, the kind where all you have to do is push down the record and play buttons and you were good to go.
More importantly though, I am learning how to best provide space for people to share their life story, how to listen wholeheartedly, know when it’s the right time to be quiet or ask another question, and of course know the right question to ask in the first place. As I am going back and listening to this first round of interviews I am also learning how to identify what is missing and what is the next layer to these interviews. I have found that getting the foundation of information from an artist (for example, childhood experiences, their relationship to art growing up, how they began to make a living as an artist) feels fairly natural and easy for me. It’s the next step in these interviews that is proving to be little more difficult for me. In November I made a trip up to the Bay Area and had initially made plans with Diana Fayt in Nevada City to have a second interview. But as it drew closer, I realized I wasn’t ready. I still couldn’t see what pieces were missing.
An important lesson that I learned along the way is each person’s story unfolds at its own pace and that some people are willing to share intimate details of their lives and creative process more readily than others. In some case artists gave me several layers of themselves without much prompting and their stories spilled out easily, while others were uncomfortable just being recorded. The most basic, unassuming question would prompt incredible stories and insights from one artist, but nothing from another. These observations seem obvious now and I feel almost silly for thinking that each interview would look similar in length and content. I will admit that my left brain tends to steer the ship and seeks out formulas, patterns, and linear processes, and then likes to short circuit when those things are disrupted. I am quickly learning that oral history is right brain territory and now see oral historians in a whole new light (I think I need to have to re-read Jill Bolte-Taylor’s A Stroke of Insight…).
So What Am I Doing With These Interviews?
Early last summer as I was plotting and planning this project I thought I would post the entire interview on the website. After doing so with Sara Paloma and Christa Assad’s interviews (who were my first two interviews), I quickly realized that few people would have the ability or even the desire to listen to the interview in its entirety - these are not polished podcast style interviews. I often refer to oral history interviews as history in the raw. Traditionally, oral history interviews are transcribed and those transcripts act as a first stop for researchers. Even a researcher who has extensive experience using oral history interviews likely doesn’t listen to an entire interview to begin their research; it is much easier to read or skim a written document to identify the parts that may be most relevant to one’s research. With this in mind I decided that providing some nice choice parts of each interview would be better by pulling out 15 - 20 minutes worth of clips.
I recently met a woman who is a film producer and has successfully brought 35 films to completion and is intimately in tune with people’s attention spans. “20 minutes? Too long, you’ll lose people,” she said, “10 minutes tops.” Ugh. It’s hard enough going down to 15… but 10?? I’m just not there yet. But I do think about what she said as I listen and make choices about what to share with the public.
I just finished the audiobook version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. I thoroughly enjoyed it for many reasons but mostly because I felt like her biggest message for the book was this: get over yourself and get to the work of participating in the creative process and making things (anything) dammit. I tend to respond well to a good kick in the pants. Among the many great stories she shares of her own creative growth is the story of getting her first story published. It was a short story she worked on for a year and a half and was 10 pages long, and purchased by Esquire. Right before the issue went to press she was told that for it to appear in the issue she would need to cut 30% of it. It was a choice, she didn’t have to do it. But if she wanted it published in that issue she’d have to toss 3 pages. And she did it. It was painful, but she did it. And as a result of that story she was signed by the literary agent she still has.
This served as a reminder to me that I don’t have to do everything at once. Nor will anything fall apart if I don’t include just the right clips of an interview. The important thing is to get it out there and (hopefully) pique a listener’s interest. Even though I long for listeners to share the experience I had while interviewing each artist, I think the the more important thing is to provide a taste.
Listening and processing each interview takes a lot of time, and although it’s slow I am enjoying it. What I discovered early on is while I listen I can’t do anything else that requires a lot of attention, but I also can’t just sit there and do nothing - that’s the fast track to crazy for me. I have found though that I can do hand sewing - either putting together a book or a piece of clothing. My hands can get lost in the rhythm of repetition, while my ears and mind can focus on the interview. I recently fell in love with designer Natalie Chanin and her hand-sewing techniques. Since last spring I have been making one thing after another with her patterns and it’s the perfect task for my hands while listening to interviews. I also found it was a great thing for me to do while I was traveling because I relaxed me after a long day of driving or after interviewing and it was something familiar to come back to every evening even when I was in unfamiliar places. It seems fitting to be working on something creative while I listen to these interviews. So, in addition to having all of these great interviews, I’ll have a new wardrobe too!
I will also be sharing my experiences interviewing by providing interview notes for each artist. I felt profoundly affected by each artist I interviewed and sharing these experiences is important for this project. Preparing these notes has been incredibly fun so far. I love sharing info about their studios, where they live, and my time with them.
As I was interviewing last summer and fall I saw some themes and shared experiences emerge. For example, one that came up over and over regardless of medium is what happens when an artist makes, or wants to make, changes with his style, process, or materials. I think everyone has faced this at least once in their career and their frustrations were the same - everyone was asked, “so, what about your old work…” I also saw interesting things that were specific to a medium; for example, I have become fascinated by sculptors who create only a few pieces every year. Their patience and devotion is inspiring to me! These are things that I will be writing about in blog posts. Stay tuned on blog posts on these topics.
So, this is my process of processing. I have returned to my life as a librarian at CalArts and am now deep into preparing for the coming semester as El Nino rains down outside my office window. I will no longer have long days to devote to all of this writing and processing and will be seeking wedges of time where I can. The wheel may slow a bit, but it will still be turning!