Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tips from Terkel for Tellers of Stories

Studs Terkel, writer and radio personality, has died in Chicago and he is being remembered with great affection.

In a LA Times tribute Stephanie Simon says that “Studs Terkel … made his name listening to ordinary folks talk about their ordinary lives -- and …turned that knack for conversation into a much-honored literary career.”

The full account is best read but here are some excerpts from this article that has important implications for storytellers:

Popular Because He Spoke About Real Life
“The author of blockbuster oral histories on World War II, the Great Depression and contemporary attitudes toward work, Terkel roamed the country engaging an astounding cross-section of Americans in tape-recorded chats -- about their dreams, their fears, their chewing gum, about racism, courage, dirty floors and the Beatles.”

“With his loud laugh and raspy voice, plus his inept fumbles with his tape recorder, he set his subjects at ease and tugged from them memories, predictions and simple truths about their everyday existence.”

“Real was what Terkel always wanted to get at: real people, real lives and real emotions.”

“He did not claim to be a social scientist. He did not seek to conduct a statistically valid poll. He simply talked to people he found interesting.”

Incurable Curiosity
“He hit upon oral history as an outlet for his insatiable curiosity in 1967, when at the age of 55 he published ‘Division Street: America’ -- a series of conversations about race with Chicago residents.”

“And Studs Terkel wanted this as his epitaph: ‘Curiosity did not kill this cat.’”

“Terkel's longtime editor, Andre Schiffrin, added, ‘The key thing was his respect for them. He wasn't there to use them. He wasn't there to make a point. He really wanted to hear what they had to say, and he respected them.’”

Listening—the Secret to His Effectiveness
“He never prepared his questions. He interrupted his guests often. Yet Terkel was known as a master interviewer, able to establish an easy rapport with just about anyone. His secret, he once said, was simple: ‘It's listening.’”

“And listen he did: to sultry jazz singers and insecure housewives; to a repentant Ku Klux Klan leader; to Bob Dylan, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Marlene Dietrich, Bertrand Russell; to a parking lot attendant and a lesbian grandmother; to a piano tuner; and to a barber.”

“As the late CBS newsman Charles Kuralt once said: ‘When Studs Terkel listens, everybody talks.’”

“‘I think he was the most extraordinary social observer this country has produced,’ said Dr. Robert Coles, a Harvard professor of psychiatry who considered Terkel a friend and inspiration.

Fittingly, at his bedside was a copy of his latest book, "P.S. Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening," scheduled for release this month.

To read the entire article:
Stephanie Simon, Studs Terkel, writer and radio personality, dies at 96, LA Times, 1 November 2008.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Terkel is honored on his 95th birthday at the Chicago History Museum during a broadcast on WFMT. He was on the station for 45 years and the program rebroadcasted a number of his interviews. (Photo courtesy of Charles Osgood / May 16, 2007 from the Chicago Tribune)