Notes From NYC: Claudia Bushman On Recording Stories
My Relief Society does something remarkable, that makes me rejoice about what Relief Society can be. We call it our Women of Faith Lecture Series. Every month or so, a different sister tells us her story of faith–which is just as often her story of doubt, and trials, and questions–and then the floor is opened for a very rich and intimate Q&A. I have experienced nothing else like it in Mormonism.
The first one I attended was by “East River Lady.” She spoke about some of the things she wrote about here. It was powerful. The second I attended was my own. I spoke about researching Heavenly Mother full-time, and some of the joy and sorrow that came. The third I attended was recently: it was by beloved Claudia Bushman. She shared her story of collecting stories, and of keeping her own.
One of the very first things that Claudia said is that while she fought keeping records for half of her life, she now thinks that it is the very most important thing we can do. She went on to explain that “if dates and names for your family are in the archives, you can access them, but there are other things that you know, that if not recorded will be lost forever.” I forget the specific examples she used here, but essentially they were experiences; they were stories.
Then Claudia acknowledged that it can be quite overwhelming to go backwards in recording such stories, and that it is not always possible. She quipped that “the dead can take care of themselves in many ways,” before adding that a better place to start may be with ourselves.
She is currently writing her own biography, I, Claudia, which title is purposefully a bit presumptuous. She wants to make room for other women to tell their own tales: “Women always apologize for writing their own stories, so I’m not apologizing, and I don’t think you should apologize for writing your own stories. I know my life isn’t very important.”
Next she introduced the Claremont Women Oral History project, which I have written briefly about before, and its “records which are pure gold.” It details “real Mormon lives” with “real honest statements.” The impetus actually started many years before in Pasadena, California, after a prominent member died without having written anything. Claudia was asked to talk to the sisters about writing.
What she shared next felt especially poignant to me: She does not consider herself a writer. She considers herself a project person. Her “keeping records” project was born with a syllabus. There were five assignments, beginning with “Write your first memory,” and ending with “Write your obituary.”
Claudia was very serious about this last one, and asked the sisters to raise their hands if they have written an obituary. My hand went up, with others. Then she said what all of us hand-raisers know: it is hard. As is planning a funeral. They take almost as much work as planning a wedding, with only the tiniest fraction of the time. Hence, “Write your own. Review it on your birthday. Put in what you want at your funeral. Jeffrey Holland to be the speaker, Mo Tab to sing. Things like that. It will take care of a lot of things for your family.”
Returning to the Pasadena project, Claudia said, “We are used to promising things that we don’t do.” Many people promised to follow the syllabus, and didn’t. “Some promised and did it. Some didn’t promise, and did it.” Each person who participated expressed gratitude.
Now for my very favorite lines of the whole evening: “Why should we tell our story?” Because it is “the best story that we have to tell,” and because we “can’t count on others to tell it.” We want to get our version out there. We want it to be right. “It is a good chance to slay one of our guilt dragons. We may be able to leave a record that will help someone.”
Claudia read a snippet of an oral history by a woman whose great-grandmother personally knew Joseph Smith. It was a simple story with a feeling that Joseph was kind. In many ways, that was all it could be, as it was not the narrator’s memory directly, but her memory of a memory.
This was contrasted to another oral history snippet. The story was not about Joseph Smith, and it was not simple. It was about the woman’s abusive stepfather, and one elaborate way she and her sister banded together to stop him. It was colorful, and rich, and present, and could be, because the narrator told the story herself.
Claudia’s point was loud and clear: “Sooner is always better. Get it down. Get it down. First person is the best. If you don’t write it, you will forget it. If no one writes it, it didn’t happen.”
“Oral history is good for everyone.” In the case of the Claremont Mormon Women Oral History Project, it was good for the students, the narrators, the families, and scholars. The lattermost group now has “signed and dated statements by real women.”
At this point she held up the first scholarly work, based on the collection, Mormon Women Have Their Say, edited by herself and our own Caroline. Then she remarked that the cover was “very Mother in Heaven–gynecological,” before stating that the “book was hard work, all hard, hard work.”
A few more details were shared about the book and the project, including how Mormon oral histories proved such a successful and worthwhile endeavor that it inspired Claremont Graduate University to take on other oral history projects highlighting other religions.
Claudia shared another story about a woman who did not want to be baptized when she was a girl, but ultimately was, because her parents threatened to give away her horse, and she didn’t want to lose her horse, even more. The woman was grown now, along with her own children, but she had never told them that story; she was nervous for them to learn the details.
Another show of hands: Did we think that she should include the story? Absolutely! Claudia agreed. “Be honest about what you have to say. If you only got baptized to keep your horse, let it be known.”
Then she shared a narrative written by a polygamist woman, named Emma Nelson.* Unfortunately, I didn’t take very good notes here, and perhaps to prove Claudia’s previous hypothesis true, I don’t remember very well here, either, only that the woman’s feelings of love and loneliness were more nuanced and varied than we often hear.
Again Claudia emphasized that we should tell our stories–even the difficult ones. “Be honest. Say what happened to you. We don’t only want to tell faith promoting stories.” Narrators don’t have to tell faithful stories. She just wants them to tell their story. “We don’t know what people will get out of it in the future.”
“Take control of your own stories. Write them down yourself. Get them right.” She acknowledged more difficulties: “You spend a lot of time doing this. It is demanding work.” Begin with “a page a month. Once you start writing it, it will get easier.”
To those who might feel like they don’t have a story to tell yet, she said, “You may think you’re too young, but I’m sorry to say, most of the important things have already happened to you. Write while you’re engaged in life.”
“People who do this are grateful.” Our stories will be a “guaranteed best seller. Everyone will stay up all night to read it. Everyone will learn new things.” I have to agree with her because of two slim volumes that I cherish, that contain loved voices from my dust.
Claudia closed her speech portion with this: “You still have time to be included in the Claremont project. You may think that you’re too busy to do it, but it is more important than many of the things you make time to do. The bottom line is if you do this, you will be glad you did.”
There were a few more gems from the question and answer period. One of my friends asked about what we do when our stories are wrapped up in someone else’s. Do we still tell them? Do we name names? Claudia suggested that we do. She believes in transparency. “What is truth? There is no truth. Everything is mediated. Your story is your story.” She offered that her sisters are fond of saying, “That’s not the way it happened, it’s the way you remember it,” but that if they don’t write it down, hers is the story that stands. “Truth is not available to us.”
Further, “I know very well everyone massages their stories. It’s the best that we can do. Like every other relationship in life, it’s imperfect.”
Someone asked her about the way she writes journals. “What do you put in?” Her answer was perfect: “Everything makes a difference.” And then it became even more sweet, because she explained that she writes about mundane things, like crossword puzzles, and basketball games, in addition to letters received and grand-babies born.
Another question brought an audience comment from another friend about the transformative nature of oral histories, and how sometimes the silence is important. Claudia agreed, and added that there is a relationship between the person who asks the questions and the person who answers.
A final call by Claudia: “Put words to paper.” This is what can last. This is the way we can say we were here, we felt, we lived, we mattered.
*Claudia reminded me of this, after Mark B. reminded me that what I originally wrote (Anne Morrow Lindbergh) was likely incorrect. Which it was.