Balloons and Stories

Back in April 2013, I started listening. I walked around Boston for a day with a cardboard sign, an audio recorder, and bunch of balloons.


People talked to me, all sorts of people.

I met homeless Vietnam vets, a woman dressed up as Lady Liberty who lost everyone on her block to the earthquake in Haiti, a T employee who swears that his mother was dead for 48 hours and came back to life after he prayed to have just one more coffee with her, and a retired Spanish teacher who swore that the Statue of Liberty was modeled after Marie Antoinette.

So, some backstory:

It started out as an act of healing. The Boston Marathon bombings had happened just a few days before. After being stuck inside on lockdown, I wanted to get out in my city––to talk to people and to listen.

Cycling home from class, I passed the tail-end of event in Conway Park. I don’t know what they were celebrating. Someone was giving away bunches of blue and green balloons. I took a set of six and tied the orange ribbon holding them together to the handlebars of my bike.

I cycled home and stashed the balloons in my room.

The next day, I scavenged in the recycling bin for an old cardboard box. I cut the box open and covered it with a paper bag. I used a Sharpie to write: “open call for stories” on its face. I poked a hole on either side of the top and threaded a green piece of ribbon through so that I could wear the cardboard sign around my neck, and use both hands to record audio unencumbered.

That was four years ago. Since then I’ve been recording stories about water and climate change in 11 countries, mostly on my bicycle. I haven’t intersected with balloons on the trip. Until now.

This weekend I’m visiting Julie Zauzmer in Washington, D.C. Julie is a bad-ass balloon twister who doubles as a reporter for the Washington Post. Back in college Julie started a club on campus called Class Clowns, which I joined because I know how to juggle and unicycle (but not at the same time). It seemed like a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Fast forward to 2017. So back in February I sent Julie a message asking if we could make “some kind of story-collecting-booth out of balloons.”

She said yes.

We spent today twisting.

Tomorrow we’ll be at Malcolm X Park starting around 9:30am. I’ll have my audio recorder with me. Tell me a story about water and/or climate change?

Here’s a small preview. More photos to come.


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Q&A: How to Collect a Story

Earlier this week I received an email from a friend in Montana who is organizing a climate change storytelling workshop for local youth. The idea is to give middle schoolers and high schoolers an introduction to recording stories (video, in their case) and then have them go out into their communities to record conversations with their friends and family about climate change.

I love this idea!

My friend asked me to share some advice for the workshop attendees. “How do you begin?” she asked.

Here goes:

I start with the “tell me a story about water and/or climate change” prompt, and then go from there. I wear a cardboard sign around my neck to make it obvious that I am out in the world to collect a story.


with storyteller Elizabeth Taylor in Rosedale, Mississippi (September 2014)

A lot of oral history is about encouraging storytellers that their voice matters. People have stories to share, but in order to share a story, they have to trust you first. You have to make them feel comfortable.

There are many ways of doing this.

Informed consent is important. People need to know where the material is going, and why you’re doing it. I always take down people’s email addresses / contact info so that I can get in touch with them later if the need arises.

Never turn on the audio recorder unless someone says it is okay.

A story is a gift, and you should treat it as such.

After someone tells me their story I always make a point of thanking them. Invariably, after the audio recorder is turned off, people will ask: “Is that okay? Was my story alright?” — I say yes. I say thank you.

Let people know that their voice matters. It does.

I also make a point of not interrupting a storyteller — newspaper / radio reporters do this, but I find that it’s awful in an oral history context. Let people tell their story on their own terms. The story is not about you. You are there to record it, yes, but the storyteller’s voice is far more important than your own. If you have a follow up question, ask it after their story has come to a natural close.

Plus, it makes it easier to edit later if there are pauses. Embrace the silence. It’s not a bad thing. Silence is rhythmic architecture — the places where we build things. Silence is beautiful.

Also, it’s essential to monitor the audio with headphones as you are recording. Wind noise is the worst and should be avoided at all costs. I use a windscreen over my microphone so that I can record outside.

Monitoring the sound will also let you know if you should move the recorder closer to the storyteller, for instance.

Go out into the world and listen.

Hope this helps.