The story-gathering process in documenting social history

The story-gathering process in documenting social history

So, you want to record stories about participating in a group or moment in time; you have decided the topic and have created a database of people who are willing to share their story. What next?  A group-writing social history exercise requires respect, trust, sharing, regular communication with everyone on the same page, and collaboration. The reflective process can be cathartic and healing for some and painful for others, so it is always a good idea to share. Placing painful or sad experiences in a new context that sets you free can be a positive outcome of the writing process, especially when guided with a narrative writing mentor.

When preparing to record the experiences of women who participated in two art and community projects in Gippsland, these are the steps I followed (I hoped to receive 25 to 30 stories, each comprising about 1500 words, and the response exceeded expectations):

FIRST STEP: I created a timeline for completion of the entire project. This included deadlines for submission of first drafts of stories, signing of permission forms, and return of final drafts. 

SECOND STEP: Each participant was contacted and invited to share their story for the book project. Some people were highly skilled and were happy to submit their story as a Word Document via email, others preferred to tell their story in a phone interview. Either way was okay. 

THIRD STEP: Research was carried out on the organisation which arranged the projects to create a brief history of local, national and world events that existed at the time the projects took place, as a backdrop to the women’s stories.

FOURTH STEP: Stories were formatted and edited and returned to each participant for checking, further tweaking, and approval, sometimes numerous times. This was an important part of the process, to check and double-check that the meaning and ‘voice’ of expressed by each participant was authentic and true to them. 

FIFTH STEP: Fact-checking on places, dates, names, distances, titles, and many aspects of the stories, took place – again by checking with each participant.

Documenting your experience for a social history reflection

I am sure you have an interesting story to share about participating in a group project. You can write about this project as an individual, or as part of a group. 

I always find that the person who is adamant their story is not worth telling is the person who has the most inspiring story of all. Everyone’s story is a piece of the social fabric of everyday life.

Share your story, preserve your experience for the benefit of others who follow. Your story counts! The more stories we have, the more complete our social history will be.

Here are some questions to help write your story:

1. Where, when were you born? Where did you grow up?

2. Describe how you became involved in the project, your role and how this project has influenced your life journey.

3. Describe a person involved in the project who had a major influence on you – what fresh skills/perspectives/values did you gain, and what did you decide to do as a result of this enrichment?

4. What aspect of the project presented the greatest challenge for you, and what brought you the greatest sense of accomplishment?

5. What did you discover and learn about yourself through participating in the art project?

6. What did you learn about others in the group, in your community?

7. Reflecting on your involvement in the project, what is your most cherished memory of this period in your life? Name one lesson, value or skill you gained, that you continue to apply today? 

8. Why do you live where you live today?

9. What do you enjoy most about this current stage of your life?

10. From your involvement in the project, what wisdom do you want to preserve and share with the current and next generations?

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