Journaling on Tape

I’m that annoying family member who attends almost every wedding reception, picnic or holiday party with video camcorder in hand. I just have to preserve the moment—much to the chagrin of my camera-shy cousins. I love videotaping activities, then pulling out the footage to share at future gatherings. These sights and sounds aid my journaling efforts to create a chronicle of my life.

That’s not to say I haven’t passed around my paper journal to collect written impressions from the family, but these musings—caught live on tape—are all the richer.

A Treasure Trove of Memories

I think the “documentarist” in me took root from my parents’ collection of videos—well, I should say, reels. Reflecting back on my childhood, the memories of gathering the family in the living room while my dad set up the projector and screen are as vivid as the sounds of those reels clicking round and round ’til the final flap of the exhausted tape. These images weren’t high-tech or elaborate—half of them were dimly lit, and, of course, all were soundless—but the power they possessed was obvious to me. These images got our family talking and with each new moment playing out before us, a new family story emerged.

It was from the video of my parents’ wedding that I first heard the tale of how almost everything went wrong that day—from no church organ, to running out of food, drinks and seats at the reception. And I don’t think the part about how it was a hot August day and Mom chose long-sleeved, turtle-neck bridesmaid dresses, complete with broad-rimmed hats (hey, it was the ’70s) would have been as funny without the images of the sweaty hair on each girl, and the hats that seemed to melt from the heat, each in a different direction.

These films fascinated me as I was growing up. I was mesmerized by the images of my parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents: their faces so young and animated, their youthful personalities dancing across the screen, living moments, celebrating events that happened before I was even born. Every time I watched these tapes I seemed to discover a new story about their lives, one that I might otherwise have never learned. For that reason, I consider these tapes a family treasure … as well as a journal-keeper’s dream.

Taping Tips

Audio-visual recordings can be your best aid in the quest to write the story of your life and family. What better record of your family’s tales than to have not only the memory of your grandma’s favorite childhood story, but a copy of it told in her very own voice and words?

Using Video

The only prerequisite for beginning to journal your life on camera is obvious: Get access to a video camera or DVD camcorder. Take it with you to those events where you know you’ll see a lot of family and friends—and record.

Don’t be shy to ask a single question to many people. This is an easy way to capture the varying personality of each person. Plus, I bet you’ll be surprised at some of the answers. Try to keep the question simple, such as “What’s your happy thought for today?” or “What’s your favorite family memory?” If you can tie your question into the theme of the event, even better.

Using Audio

If you are an audiotape buff, choose a recorder that is either easy to carry or easy to talk into, if not both.

Try two techniques: candid and interview style.

With the candid approach, set the tape in a room where conversation will naturally happen—a kitchen or dining room is great for this. Capture the natural exchange of dialogue.

Like with video recordings, when you use the interview approach, try asking the same question (or series of questions) to several people. Audiotape interviews work great, especially if you are sitting one-on-one with someone. A tape recorder is less obtrusive than a camera; it can sit hardly noticed between the two of you.

A Life on Tape

Documenting your life on videotape, audiotape or nowadays DVD camcorder can act as a complement and tool to your paper journaling—especially if one of your main reasons for journaling is preserving your family history or the history of your own life for future generations. Audio-visual recordings allow you to preserve moments in time as they happen. You can easily tote a camera or tape-recorder with you to events, set it on record, and go about the day. You can also use both audio or video recorders in interview style—interacting and conversing with individual family members.

The sights and sounds you collect can later be used to prompt writing in your journal. For example: Use the tapes to spark creative or reflective writing about the events. Or, transcribe the dialogue verbatim, and create a record of an individual’s comments or the dynamics of a family conversation. Or, compose a journaled script of the day—complete with timeline and a description of key events.

However, recording does not have to play only a secondary role to your paper journals. Have you ever considered keeping an audio or video journal? I know several people who keep a mini-tape recorder on hand and use it to “journal” by speaking their thoughts stream-of-conscious into the tape. They vouch it’s just as therapeutic as picking up a pen or keyboard. It definitely is an easy way to keep you connected to what’s going on inside yourself as you rush from here to there. And what an heirloom for future generations—your grandchildren getting to listen to your voice relaying the events of your day or just your thoughts and feelings on this or that. What a glimpse into yourself you’d create.

A video journal would also create an awesome legacy—with the added benefit that your ancestors would not only have your voice but your image, along with your words and ideas.

I have kept a video journal several times in my life. For me, this kind of journal works well to document transitions. For example: When my parents were planning to move out of the house I had always considered “home,” I took care to record each room, pointing out and explaining objects or spaces of sentimental significance. Knowing I had this place, not only in my mind’s eye but also on videotape, helped me to accept that the house and its good times were not going to be lost.

I’ve also used this type of journaling in a manner more akin to the audiotape style, setting up the camera on a tripod, then sitting and speaking on this or that directly into the lens. My goal with these video journal “self-interviews” was to capture where I was and what I looked like at a certain moment in time. I plan to periodically do this as I age, so I can look back and see my progression through life—physically and emotionally. Recently, I’ve started asking myself the same series of questions each video journal session to see how the answers change over time.

Seize the Day

The moments you take the time to record are priceless. You’ll only get one chance to grab them. Once taping becomes a part of your journaling habit, the bittersweetness you’ll feel when you find yourself in a moment that’d you’d love to record but you are without your recorder will be hard to swallow.

I’ll never forget the day I went to visit my great-grandpa Joe with my journal in one hand and tape recorder in the other on the mission to start writing down his life story. We set up on his porch, my journal, open, my pen, ready to take notes—when I discovered my tape recorder was out of batteries. I decided that the tape wasn’t that important and went on with the interview. But the next day when he unexpectedly, yet peacefully, passed away, I was so sad not to have seized that moment on tape. The journal notes are wonderful, but they just can’t relay the humor of his storytelling or the loving jest we exchanged on the porch that day.

Add spice and new dimension to your journaling ways. Record the moments that make up a lifetime—so that even if you don’t get the chance to write down every story of your life, your grandchildren will.

From the October 2002 issue of Personal Journaling.

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