Twitter breeds all kinds of storytelling conversation starters, and we’ve started rounding them up. Texas Monthly’s Pamela Colloff tweeted for recommendations on crime writing and empathy a couple of weeks ago, and the twitterverse delivered. This morning, The New Yorker’s David Grann tweeted Politico’s oral history of the government shutdown, which led the Washington Post’s David Beard to note how much he likes the oral history approach to narrative …
Oral history allows for a range of voices and insights, and for chronological structure, structure being a key element of narrative. With the right sources and focused reporting, you can make an oral history out of almost anything, as this roundup shows:
“The War Within: Inside the Making of the Government Shutdown,” by Robert Draper, Politico:
Southerland: Every morning, we start the conference off with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. They asked me to pray, and I’m a vocalist and have sung my whole life. “Amazing Grace” is a glorious song that is very comforting, and when you’re in difficult times—and clearly we’re in difficult times—so I asked everyone to bow their head, and I sang. And, oh yeah, they joined in. It was a low hum, and you could hear it, and it was good.
Nunes: It started out with people feeling it was a decent plan leadership put out, and it was almost like nobody spoke. Then a few people jumped on this Vitter issue.
Labrador: I got up and I just had a simple question. My question was, “Since we have the biggest leverage on the Vitter language, why would you give that up in your negotiations with the Senate? By giving up the issue with the staff, you’re actually giving Harry Reid exactly what he wants, because his staff is apoplectic about this.” Speaker after speaker got up to say, “I agree. The strongest hand we have right now is Vitter.”
Johnson and Lady Bird spend their first minute or two on board in the bedroom—two single beds, a nightstand, a painting of a French farmhouse on the wall. The room’s ghosts are too new, and the Johnsons are uncomfortable in their company. On the careening drive to Love Field, Lady Bird had looked out a window and seen a flag already lowered to half-mast. “I think that was when the enormity of what had happened fresh struck me,” she says later. The Johnsons ask to go to the adjacent stateroom instead.
Lyndon Johnson appears in the hallway. He is six foot three, filling the passage. Everybody in the room jumps to their feet, including the three congressmen, Texans all. Congressman Thomas is the first of them to speak: “We are ready to carry out any orders that you have, Mr. President.”
Texas Monthly is known for its oral histories. “Oral histories celebrate the power of the primary source,” the magazine reports on its Oral History page. “For it’s the firsthand observer to history and his unique imprint of remembrances that are the building blocks of this form of storytelling.” The magazine has produced accounts of a 1937 school explosion that killed some 300 students and teachers (by Katy Vine); the Florida recount that put George W. Bush in the White House (by Brian Sweany); the 1950s drought (by John Burnett); the making of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (the book and the movie, by John Spong); and the life of Willie Nelson (by Michael Hall). The oral history mentioned by Storyboard contributor Elon Green is Colloff’s “96 Minutes,” on a sniper who climbed the University of Texas Tower on the first day of August in 1966, and fired his way into infamy:
BRENDA BELL: We were holed up in Parlin Hall when Billy Speed was shot, and he was close enough that I could have thrown my pencil on him. A couple of students crept out the back door and made their way to him. A girl took off her slip and used it to try to stanch the bleeding, but he was bleeding a lot. The guy who was with her had gotten a little tin cup and filled it with water. It was just like in the cowboy movies, right? You give the guy a drink of water from a tin cup and you rip up a sheet and you try to bind the wound. That was the moment that separated the brave people from the scared people. I realized that there was no way that I was going out there to help him. I didn’t want to get shot. That was a defining moment, because I realized I was a coward.
BOB HIGLEY: Clif Drummond and I wanted to see if there was anything we could do to help. We took an interior stairwell down to the bottom floor of the Texas Union and exited on the Drag. A lot of kids were standing there, hugging that west wall pretty good. Across the street was a student sitting against a parking meter, obviously wounded, his head slumped over. We later learned his name was Paul Sonntag. Nobody was going over to help him. Drummond said something to the effect of “Let’s go get him.” We looked each other in the eye and had a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid kind of moment. I said, “Are you going first or am I?”
“An Oral History of the March on Washington,” by Michael A. Fletcher, Smithsonian:
I don’t know where that march started out. It looked like we marched forever before we got to the Mall. You were used to marching; you wear comfortable shoes so your feet won’t hurt and you don’t get blisters. We got to the stage and Coretta [Scott King] and I sat on the second row. Mahalia [Jackson] sat on the first row, because she was singing. We were on the left side of the stage. I wanted to scream, we were so happy, we were ecstatic. We had no idea it would be that many people—as far as you could see there were heads. What I called a sea of people; because all you could see was people, everywhere, just a sea of heads and what jubilation. Which said to us in the civil rights movement: “Your work has not been in vain. We are with you. We are part of you.”
It was at the back side of Mr. Lincoln that Mr. Randolph and Dr. King said to me, “John, they still have a problem with your speech. Can we change this, can we change that?” I loved Martin Luther King, I loved and admired A. Philip Randolph, and I couldn’t say no to those two men. I dropped all reference to marching through the South the way Sherman did. I said something like “If we do not see meaningful progress here today, we will march through cities, towns and hamlets and villages all across America.”
I was thinking about how I was going to deliver the speech. I was 23 years old and it was a sea of humanity out there that I had to face.
JUNE DOBBS BUTTS: First thing we did was call the Kings and ask if there was anything we could do. They said, “Please come over. We’ll give you things to do.” We went over and we started sewing veils on the hats. Women don’t ever wear hats anymore. But we sewed on veils for the longest.
The governor of Michigan [G. Mennen Williams] gave money to provide refreshments to help the Kings because they were overwhelmed. I met him and his wife; they were very nice. So we stayed there and talked to people, we were like hostesses. The different people! Some wanted to be seen; some were genuinely distraught. They had people who said, “I’m your cousin. You didn’t know about me, but we’re cousins!” By the truckload. They came and they wanted to be fed. The Kings were very gracious to all of them.
I met Aretha Franklin. She was very distraught. She and her dad had worked with M.L.; he’d been to speak at her dad’s church. She was just a very humble young woman.
KATHRYN JOHNSON: At Coretta’s house telegrams stacked on the dining room table and on smaller tables around the house. There were plenty of people helping; I pitched in. Telegrams came from all kinds of people, from heads of state to slum dwellers.
Whitesell: In Hollywood, there’s a network of creative executives, and when they hear something is good it catches fire. My phone started ringing like crazy. Everyone wanted to sit down with Matt and Ben. It started getting hot. There was a bidding war.
Damon: Patrick Whitesell, in the span of just four days, kind of whipped the town into this frenzy. We sold it to Castle Rock, which was our very first choice. They had a great reputation.
Affleck: I remember it was printed in Daily Variety that we were going to get $600,000 on it. We had no credit, so we went to rent this house that was $3,000 a month, and we used a copy of the Daily Variety to get the place. I was like, “I don’t have credit, but this is who we are.” And the landlord was like, “All right, sure.” We thought $600,000 would take care of us for 20 years, so we rented nicer apartments and each bought Jeep Cherokees. And we were completely broke in a year.
“The Original Frenemies: An Oral History of Siskel and Ebert,” by Josh Schollmeyer, Slate:
Gene always jabbed at Roger. He found it irresistible. But Roger was just as witty so he would give it right back. (TF)
I have outtakes of Gene and Roger going after each other. Gene says, “Roger has to move. Crane please!” And Roger retorts, “Makeup—more hair!”3 (RS)
It killed Gene that in the earliest days of Sneak Previews, he had to introduce Roger to viewers as the Pulitzer Prize–winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Instead, every week he would come up with a new insult for his and the staff’s amusement. My personal favorite: “Seated to my left is Roger Ebert, film critic for the Las Vegas Shopper News.” (JD)
Davey Mason, a.k.a. Davey Dave, Chicago-based DJ: It was hard to put up a stage in mud — dangerous, too… This is the difference between the festivals now and the music back then. The rave scene was built on music and people’s camaraderie between each other. We took away the rock-star aspect of it. You were there strictly for the music.
Prince: I remember people telling me stories about being afraid to touch their microphones because they were standing in a pool of water. Any outdoor [DJs] tried to block the wind out of the turntables and [were] taping quarters to the top of the tone arms.
Bonde: A number of friends injured themselves. One fell with his leg down a pipe and basically skinned the front of his leg. He was walking around with a flap of skin. My friend Ray was walking in the dark and got his scrotum attached to a barbed-wire fence and was rushed off to the hospital. In the end, it saved his life because they figured out he had testicular cancer.
Sattinger: No injuries that I know of, but I do remember they were selling drugs out of the ambulance.
“Hot Mess,” an oral history of the Burning Man festival, by Brad Wieners, Outside:
FENTON: My first year, 1991, it’s 100 people. The second year it’s 400, and the third 800. At that point it wasn’t so much that there were a lot of people but that there were a lot of people you couldn’t vouch for. Some came to party, some came looking for an art event, and some were Mad Max reenactors. Then, in ’94, we called it the Black Rock Arts Festival, and we had real artists doing real art, like Pepe Ozan. That’s the same year the theme-camp idea came about.
HARVEY: Peter [Doty] has been celebrated for Christmas Camp, the first really funny one. It was a spoof of a mall Santa. Peter was Santa, and he played Christmas carols constantly and guilt-tripped everyone: “Santa gives and he gives, and what does he get?” He served eggnog in 95 degrees and then complained bitterly when you wouldn’t drink it.
BINZEN: Some of the most astonishing moments came from Kimric Smythe, one of the early pyrotechnic people. As Exploding Man, he and his wife, Heidi, both had these big spinning armatures strapped
to their backs, with fireworks and sparks shooting off. It was inspiring to see what unexpected things people could do. We’d go to their camps afterward to congratulate them before hunkering down in the quiet of the desert—until the first rave camp came to the desert and cranked it up.