Tanya Finchum on Oral History and Self Care

During these strange, difficult times, it’s an apt opportunity to reflect on how conducting oral history interviews can trigger our own memories and emotions. In this second installment of our conversation on self care and oral history, seasoned interviewer Tanya Finchum of the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program at Oklahoma State University shares some of her practices and strategies for self-care while preparing for and processing her interview experiences, inspired by her 2020 presentation on the subject at the OHA annual meeting.

By Tanya Finchum

I have been presenting at the annual Oral History Association meeting since 2007 and I will say that my 2020 presentation was the most challenging. I shared parts of my personal story, including raw emotions, to strangers over Zoom. How could I not do this when I often ask narrators to share their stories with me? By nature I am not a talkative person, being more comfortable in the asking and listening role of an interviewer. As I prepared to give the talk, I recalled many examples of emotionally-laden experiences, including a fairly recent one that had to do with a six-year-old ‘harvesting’ his first deer. I was totally unprepared for this story as it had little to do with the main topic of the interview. In that moment, to use an analogy, I had a “deer in the headlight” experience. Memories of Bambi came rushing back and my internal voice was screaming “Don’t shoot the innocent doe!” I have no idea what my facial expression or body language was saying, but I was aware I needed to stay in the moment yet separate myself somehow. Self-care. I was thankful for a drive home, a four-hour drive with the radio on while trying to file the memory where it would have the least impact.

As part of my library science degree program I took a children’s literature class. The Giver by Lois Lowry was one of the required readings, a dystopian story in which one of the main characters trains to take over “The Receiver of Memory” role. The Receiver of Memory stored all the past memories of the people in the community. Having been the lead interviewer in over 450 oral history interviews I have so many stories stored in my memory, not to mention stories from my own life, that at any given time something can trigger a challenging emotion. So in those moments, and after, how does one self-care?

For me it starts with acknowledging the feeling internally and making a split second decision as to how to respond in order to keep the interview on track. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to maintain the balance of being emotionally attuned to both the narrator and myself. I have tried to train myself to take care of the person in front of me first, but not to forget to take care of me once the interview is complete. I don’t always succeed, and that’s okay. I’m human and our work revolves around humans and being human. I listen to the radio and certain lyrics resonate and help me through some difficult experiences. I also regularly and faithfully take long and unplugged walks, what I call “turtle trots.” I listen to nature and let my mind meander along or think deeply, whatever happens to feel right at the time.

Having been a social worker for ten years I am aware of burnout and compassion fatigue. And in my oral history work I am also aware of curiosity fatigue. I have incorporated a step in my pre-interview routine to manage both of these. I take a few minutes before getting out of the car or before entering the room to remind myself why I am there and that the next few hours are about the narrator, not me. I also think of the Golden Rule instilled in my youth and hum some of the lyrics from the musical Oklahoma, “Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day. I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everything’s going my way.” My mother sang these lines each school morning as she walked down the hall to wake us up and it has a way of putting me in a positive frame of mind. I also don’t forget that it is a privilege to be invited into a home to share a slice-of-life with an oral history narrator.

To conclude, as I am writing this I recall the words a centenarian said to me as she walked me to the door, “Thank you for your kindness. I am so glad you weren’t like the news people.” That definitely helps with self-care.

Dr. Tanya Finchum is a Professor with the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program and has been a member of the Edmon Low Library faculty since 1999. She has conducted over 450 oral history interviews, beginning in 2006, and has been the leader on projects featuring various narrators such as women legislators, cooperative extension educators, and Oklahomans working to sustain the Monarch butterfly population and other conservation efforts, just to name a few. She also contributes to the production workflow and discoverability efforts. Finchum, along with Dr. Alex Bishop, received the 2017 Elizabeth B. Mason Large Project Award from the Oral History Association for the Oklahoma 100 Year Life project that includes interviews with 111 centenarians. Additionally, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress awarded Finchum and her colleague, Juliana Nykolaiszyn, a 2011 Archie Green Fellowship to document circus related occupations. The project, The “Big Top” Show Goes On, won the 2013 Elizabeth B. Mason Small Project Award from the Oral History Association. Finchum is a 2017 Columbia Center for Oral History Summer Institute Fellow. She holds a doctorate in Family Relations and Child Development with an emphasis in gerontology from Oklahoma State University, a M.S. in Library Science from The University of Tennessee, a M.A. in Rehabilitation Counseling from the University of Cincinnati and a Bachelor of Social Work from East Tennessee State University.