Monday, April 26, 2010

Carving and sculpting and hosing things down

A woodcarver looks at a piece of wood, sees an animal within it waiting to escape, and begins to cut away what doesn't belong. Same with a sculptor when he chisels a block of marble and frees an angel or a nymph or a David.

Me? I'm a word sculptor, a carver so to speak, except I feel like I'm using a water hose and washing away the muck from a swamp monster that is rising from the depths of Pilot Mountain. The swamp, though, is in my mind and in the thousands upon thousands of words I've collected from the interviews I've done these past few months. The monster is slowly fading and in its place I can see the beginnings of a form. Finally I have an outline and along with it, defined chapters where I can send information.

The problem is when I eliminate the muck and get to the core of one story, then this swamp monster emerges again as if it dipped itself deeper just to come back even stronger. With each new interview I find my self once again chiseling away to free a story. I've heard the term "organic" batted around at writers' conferences. I know organic now. I'm with it in the swamps of these interviews. And I love it.


Friday, April 23, 2010

Be a good scout

Be prepared. Isn't that the scout motto? I should know since I was a Girl Scout all through school.

Yesterday I went to the library planning to research a particular issue on this Pilot Mountain schoolhouse topic, but I got a little sidetracked. A gentleman in the local history room started telling me about his aunt who taught at the school. Hmmmm. Thick academic books or real life story? No brainer there.

No tape recorder either. I was not prepared, but I made do. I grabbed my pen and notepad, pulled a chair next to him and started taking notes. He was a delight to visit with and gave me more leads on people to interview.

Be prepared. Get the story.


Thursday, April 22, 2010

A tale of two trees

There I was in a local historical society waiting to talk to them about how to interview when I realized this was a preaching to the choir moment. They had already published several excellent booklets about some people in their community, so what I needed to do was connect my experiences with theirs. I shared my methods and techniques with them and they shared with me.

We started down in the dumps. The item ahead of me on their agenda was about locating past landfills and although their discussion had nothing to do with interviewing, it gave me a chance to talk about the importance of interviewing. Years ago I interviewed a lady who told me the story about two magnolia trees. We could see them outside the window where we were talking. She said that her father planted them both at the same time, yet one was almost double the size of the other. She pointed at me and said, "Someone needs to know the truth about those trees and I'm going to tell you." It seems that when the road was originally paved in the early thirties, there were barrels of leftover creosote the workers buried in the field. Her father planted one tree over the creosote dump and one further away. Over seventy-five years later, the creosote tree barely survived while the other thrived.

That simple story strikes at the core of interviewing. The past does matter and if the truth dies with the older generations, what are we leaving for the future generations?


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Interview Release Form

This evening I'm visiting a local community historical society at their monthly meeting and making a presentation about interviewing. I've gone back over my interviewing methods and successes and not-so-successes to glean a bit of information to share with them so they can begin a project of their own.

Strange thing, this phenomenon called coincidence. I am registered on a listserve for nonfiction writers and the theme to yesterday's strand was the interview release form. How convenient that somewhere in this universe there was someone asking about interviews on the very day I was preparing a presentation about interviews. Yes, I definitely use a release form and I'd suggest that as basic to every interview. That's part of my presentation tonight.  Mine, however, is a little different from the versions posted by others on the listserve and it goes to intent, or more exact, what will be done with the information from the interview. My intent is to publish a book about this remarkable country schoolhouse in North Carolina. The first sentence on the release states my intent and has the person fill in the blank in that very sentence giving me permission to use what is said during the interview. Several times, people have said, "and don't put that in the book," and I will respect that, even though those are usually the best stories ever.

I have three interviews scheduled today and I am so looking forward to them. First I need to print a few more copies of my release form. Ah, the business side of interviewing.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Study Room Available

I think I've found an alternate spot to interview people for my Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse project. It's a study room deep in the inner workings of the Burke County library and when I say study room, I mean exactly that. No distractions. Sound proof. Just me and my shadow, except there are no shadows down there in the bowels. The room is big enough for two chairs, maybe a third if we scrunch up. Nothing on the walls, nothing on the platform shelf they call a desk.

Also no stimulation. The thoughts I recorded from the lady I was interviewing came straight from her mind and with her, that was a good thing. Her memories flooded out in such a heartfelt way, they brought me to tears a couple times. Would the story have been as powerful if we had been in a room at her home? Definitely. Yet there in that little eight by eight square room, there were two souls and a tape recorder. She was free and nothing around us reminded her to hold back the story.

It worked last Saturday.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

Location, location, location

Planning an interview? Suggestion for today: You must consider the location for the face to face meeting. I've found that's as important as the questions I ask. I devote much of my time to an exchange student program and my position as area team sending coordinator involves interviewing students and their parents. I am required to make a home visit to see the student's environment and interaction within the family setting. One step inside a home can reveal as much about family dynamics as a thousand words. Yes, the proverb holds true in that case.

Yesterday I interviewed someone for a job in that same exchange student company. We met at a restaurant in a casual, comfortable setting that allowed us to speak about hopes and ideas and possibilities. Her thousand words gave me the picture I needed. Different situation, different need, different location choice.

In the Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse project, I'm finding some older adults see home interviews by a stranger as next to an invasion. They begin by apologizing for the condition of their home. They wonder if they should offer me anything to eat. They ignore the telephone when it rings, even though I assure them I don't mind if they answer.

After about ten home interviews for this project, I decided to change strategies. Now I interview in the schoolhouse. Being there brings back certain memories just by looking at the hallway or the door into a particular teacher's classroom. Trouble is, here I need the thousand words. I have the picture from the forty people I've already interviewed, but I must pull out the unique story this person has about the same picture.

This morning I'm off to another interview. This one is at the library because the schoolhouse is rented for the day. It's a new location for me to use. I'll let you know how this works.


Monday, April 12, 2010

An image to relish

Ta-Da! Here it is in my blog header, the namesake of my latest writing project: Pilot Mountain. It straddles the border between McDowell and Burke counties in western North Carolina, and though it might seem like a mere hump in the earth to you, standing there apart from the nearest chain, it gave the early settlers a point of reference, a landmark to guide them. The Pilot.

There's a story behind this photograph. Remember now, I'm the story collector and I find the story in everything if I look hard enough, so here it is.

I have critique partners that never hesitate to bite into the meat of my manuscripts, chew on them and spit them back at me smiling all the while. I love it and I love them. One of my critique buddies lives in the shadow of this mountain. Well, she doesn't exactly live in the shadow, but if this mountain were as tall as the Alps, she would. She does have some wonderful vantage points for photos from her neighborhood. Last week we went adventuring to capture the image that you see above. The first attempt was from a house directly across from the mountain.

But there was a forest fire in the distance, so I didn't want that to distract from the main idea. So we climbed higher on the porch of that home.

But that shows the gouge of red dirt from the motor cross bike path that cuts into the edge of the mountain and I didn't want that. No scars for my perfect picture. So we went to another home on a different ridge. We banged around enough to rouse the owners and invite ourselves onto their third floor deck that looks over the valley.
Getting more like I want, even with the shadow of a passing cloud to add character. But here I could see the bike path even more. Scars on my mountain!
On my drive home, I stopped several times on the side of the road and took more pictures.
  There it is, alone against the world. The Pilot. I like this picture because it shows why this mountain is distinctive, and why a school named for it would have this aura of apartness, steadiness and aged strength.
And that's when I came to the decision to use this rural portrait for my header. I want to show peace and steadfastness. I want to show one mountain worthy of a namesake. So here it is. Isn't it lovely?