The elderly woman wanted to tell her life story. She wanted her grandchildren to know how much things had changed, even in rural Minnesota, during her long life.
She was articulate, funny, and had an excellent memory. I could practically smell her father’s fat cigars and feel the frost on the blankets before her brother fed the wood stove at five a.m.
The first three chapters practically wrote themselves: childhood, teenage years, college.
But the next two interviews, about her life after college, got a bit scrambled. Everything happened at once. She got married, had a son, and worked off and on at her father’s jewelry store. Her younger brother died of pneumonia.
She talked about meeting her husband, then about something he did at age fifty, and then about something her husband’s brother did after she was widowed. She remembered her first car, which prompted a story about having to line up and wait all morning until it was her turn at the pump during the gas shortages of the 1970s.
I dutifully typed on my laptop and asked more questions that produced more great anecdotes.
Later, I typed Chapter 4 at the top of the document and the words didn’t flow. I cleaned up my notes and tried to arrange her stories by time period, and then by theme, and then by the people involved.
When I finally looked up, it was five hours later and all I had was a big, fat mess.
I had made a huge mistake as an interviewer. Her early years had been very linear, focused on her family and friends and moving from one grade to the next. Keeping everything straight was easy.
But after that, I failed to come up with a specific goal for each interview. I got careless, relying on her storytelling ability to steer the course of her life story, forgetting that this was my job.
We had to go over those years again, and this time I kept the conversation focused.
She didn’t seem to mind, but I hated wasting all that time and effort. And I never went into another interview without having a specific outcome in mind, and three or four objectives for reaching it.