Written by Ken Oguss
Storyteller, Documentary Filmmaker
Digital Audio Editor and Transcriptionist for The Life Stories Project
I am sitting at the computer in my apartment in Broad Ripple with the windows open. I can hear the singing of birds, and in the distance, sounds of street work being done outside to accommodate the new apartments, grocery, and parking garage next store. Five years ago, before they were built, I sat in this chair listening to the first interviews recorded for the Life Stories Project. I was listening for short stories to edit and upload to the Life Stories Project website. http://lifestoriesproject.net When you listen to those diverse stories you get a better feeling for who we are here in Central Indiana!
In the past five years we’ve collected over 160 life story interviews. I wrote in a blog about that process back in August 2013, “I Am A Man Who Listens.” http://storytellingarts.org/2013/08/i-am-a-man-who-listens/. Now I sit in this same chair not only editing the new recordings twice a year, but I have joined Celestine Bloomfield and Stephanie Edwards in the new and important work of transcribing ALL of the interviews so far.
Transcribing is a careful process of listening to and typing from the audio recordings word for word. It takes a long time to do well; several hours to do a 45 minute interview. I use a foot pedal to play and pause the playback. I can adjust the speed. I not only listen for good, short stories from a person’s life, but I am also trying to replicate the nuances of spoken story in writing. I have always been a student of language, but this experience of transcription has sharpened my ear to the way folks actually talk! It is different than the way we write literature. I listen carefully to the way the stories are flavored with accents from all corners of our country as well as the spices of foreign lands. Those accents, place names, and other specialized terminology can make our transcription work especially challenging. My colleagues will tell you more about that in future blogs.
Having come from a background in Anthropology I have taken particular notice of the “metrics” of these interviews; in particular, how fast people speak when they are telling their life stories. I would say that the average Midwesterner may speak a range of 120 to 150 words per minute (WPM). However, within the first year of collecting life stories in this project we have had the extreme range of as slow as 111 WPM to an amazing 196 WPM. I happen to know both of these people. They are both gifted storytellers. They are both African American women. They are both beautiful, and as spirited as wild birds.
Like wild birds, many of us have come to Central Indiana bringing our distinctive melodies along.
So here I am, sitting in that same chair, listening for the second time to those stories we began gathering five years ago. I am picking up new details on the second listening, much as you do when you reread a favorite book. Outside my window the birds are singing about who they are, where they have come from, and how it feels to be in Central Indiana in the Spring. They are happy because many of them have been here before. I am happy to be doing important work for future scholars of our life stories. And I feel especially lucky to be hearing these stories the second time around.