James Whitman

Author, playwright and creative writing tutor, based in Sunderland.

Who Do You Want To Meet?

Week 1: Humans of Sunderland

For our first ‘Who Do You Want To Meet?’ session, we looked at Humans of New York as a blueprint for telling short stories about ourselves.

Our lives are a series of moments. One moment we’re hanging out socks, the next we’re reading to our children, the next we’re watching TV, then… BANG!!! Something life-changing happens.

But how can we identify those moments? Even with hindsight, it can be hard. And how do we turn our memories of those moments into stories?

Exercise #1: Humans of New York

Humans of New York began as a portrait portfolio. It is now an international phenomenon. In large part, this is because of the stories people share with Brandon Stanton (the creator) as he photographs them.

The stories are always short and simple, but they often capture one of those life-changing moments. Sometimes the person telling the story has come to terms with the events, sometimes they’re still in the thick of it, but one thing the stories demonstrate is how much we all have in common.

For this exercise, we’re going to “reverse engineer” a Humans of New York story. Stanton’s technique is very simple: he has a set of questions, and he sticks to these whoever he speaks to. But what are those questions? That’s what we’re going to figure out.

1) To begin, read some stories from Humans of New York (Facebook | Instagram).

2) Next, think about what questions Brandon might have asked those people. For instance, he might have asked about a situation (e.g. “How did you meet your partner?”). He might ask about a relationship (e.g. “What was your father like?”). Or he might ask about an emotion (e.g. “What makes you happiest?”). Try to come up with at least three questions for each photo / story.

These should be questions most of us could answer. For instance, we have all been in difficult situations, and we have all been happy or sad or angry at some point in our lives.

Exercise #2: 3-Minute Interview

You can do this exercise alone, but it is easier if you have someone who can help you.

1) Choose three of the questions you thought of from Exercise #1. Try to make these questions different from each other. For instance, you could ask about a situation, a relationship and an emotion.

2) If you are working with a partner, pick one person to ask the questions, and one person to answer them. BUT… you only have three minutes. You don’t have to ask or answer all three questions, but you must stop once three minutes have passed.

3) If you are working alone, you might try writing answers to these questions instead, but give yourself a short amount of time.

As you do this exercise, try to frame your answer as a story. So, instead of just saying you had a dog, for instance, you might think of a moment or an event when you were with your dog. What was the situation? What happened? How did you feel and did you learn anything?

Top Tip: The more specific you can be the better, but bear in mind that you don’t have many words / time to tell your story.

Next time…

In Session #2, we will focus on sharing stories about childhood. These might be stories about your own childhood, about your children, or about children you know. We will also look at how to structure our stories, so they’re satisfying to read or hear.

For homework, think about stories or events from your own childhood. Try to focus on things you used to do, people you knew then, and how you felt.

Until next time… toodle-oo!

This project was created in partnership with Sunderland Culture as part of the Great Places scheme, supported by Arts Council England and National Lottery Heritage Fund.

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