National Writing Project

Ordinary Lives Illuminated: Writing Oral History

By: Jean Gandesbery
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1
Date: Winter 1990

Summary: Gandesbery argues that students introduced to oral history writing learn to attend closely to the stories of others, and discover that "ordinary lives" are not ordinary at all.



In approaching the assignments of oral history in my writing classes, I have purposely constructed the assignment to be as open-ended as possible, with only one stricture: students must feel attracted to their subject's potential story, to his or her relationship to the past or to the themes the story suggests, such as major changes in the person's life or critical decisions that the person has made. While every person has a story to tell,... I have found that by insisting that students be acquainted with and interested in their selected subjects, the possibility of capricious choice is eliminated. When students feel that their subject is interesting, they tend to ask promising questions and listen carefully to their subject's replies.

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