Laura Hedgecock

May 042016
 

A time for change quote A time for change often hits us from behind. The change is either inevitable or beyond our control. I’ll confront such a time on Mother’s Day when I watch my eldest son walk across the stage at his college commencement ceremony. A lot of things will be commencing, including his job search and our wrapping our heads around the fact that he won’t be coming home to roost any longer.

Adjusting to change

Those times in which we adjust to a new normal are important to write about. Tell the story of what happened and whether or not you were prepared for the change.  Did you embrace your new role or did you grieve for the past?

Was it (or is it) a slow change that you saw coming from years away?  Aging, ravages of chronic disease, and kids growing up too fast all come to mine.  How did you try to prepare yourself? Did you put your head in the sand until you had no choice but face reality or did you obsessively research, read books, and consult friends?

Sometimes drastic life changes sneak up on us. We get a phone call and hear of the change—a fait accompli.  (I hope if this happened to you it was for winning a lottery.)

In Handbook of Stressful Transitions Across the Lifespan, T.W. Miller writes, “Life transitions can provide a productive time to introspectively understand ourselves.”  These transitions also bring an opportunity to explain ourselves to others.

Was life suddenly divided into a before and after as surely as if that date was tattooed upon your forehead?  How did you deal with the shock?  Looking back now, how do you feel about the before? What have you learned about moving forward?

Time for a change

Sometimes we come to a realization that it’s time to make a change. We’ve stagnated. Screwed up. We’re looking for a new beginning or have gathered up the gumption to pursue a dream.  Such changes don’t always come easily.  Pulling ourselves off of our current path and onto a new one can be excruciating. For instance, checking into rehab to begin a life of recovery often takes hitting rock bottom first. Other times, accepting change can mean voluntarily kissing a lot of things that you love goodbye, such as moving to a new place or starting a new career. Going back to being the new kid on the block.

Small Changes

A time for change doesn’t have to be huge to make a significant story. I love remembering how my Dad decided to stop smoking right after he met his grandson for the first time. Longevity suddenly mattered.

There are changes we all make for the better—learning to be more accepting of people, more forgiving. We mellow with age. That mellowing makes a great story.

Your Turn: A time for Change

When have you experienced a time for change in your life? Have you written about it?

Apr 222016
 
Make stories relevant show emotions

When you make your family stories relevant, they pull at the heart strings of your readers.

There’s a point to sharing ancestors’ stories—or at least there should be. Educate. Connect. Inspire.  That happens best when you’re able to make family stories relevant.

I could share a detailed tale about my grandmother, one that includes every bit of historical minutiae that I’ve been able to find. But why would you want to read that? She’s my grandmother, not yours. If I want you to read them—I need to make my family stories relevant to you, the reader. I need to make you care.

Making stories relevant has very little to do with spinning (or citing) an extraordinary tale. It has more to do with revealing the humanity within that narrative. Shauna Niequist writes:

I’m less and less interested in the ruminations of a scholar and more and more compelled by stories with grit and texture and blood and guts and humanity. I’m compelled by stories from everyday people whose lives sound a lot more like mine than the stories of superstars and high achievers…

How do you make your family stories relevant?

How do you make your characters pull at their descendants’(your readers) heart-strings?  How do you achieve that “there but for the grace of God, there go I” type of feeling?

The American Press Institute explains that we care most about those things that affect us. Just as we care more about the local forecast than the one across the country, our hearts are more likely to go out to a local family or a relative than a stranger several states away.

The article, Good Stories Prove their Relevance to the Audience, suggests making the ‘common ‘proximity’ of interests and emotions of the story clear. That works particularly well for those of us trying to make our family stories relevant.

The reader may identify with a range of life experiences, from the emotional shock of losing a job or worrying about a sick child to mundane tasks like the weekly trip to the grocery store or filling the car with gas…

How was your family member or ancestor relatable?  Was he in constant fear of not being able to provide for his children? Was she a mother that had buried children? Husbands? A reluctant matriarch?

Give your readers a passport into the past.

Help your readers understand why they would want visit the foreign soils of the past. Encourage them to use their imagination. What would it be like to live in that time period? What would family members be like if they lived in modern times? What would it have been like to have them as a friend? A grandparent? How would you have managed in their circumstances?

Write about decisions and circumstances.

Part of making a story relatable comes through promoting understanding through the setting. Not just that it was a sunny day in 1893, but by highlighting social context. What might the family dream for a little girl born that year? Today we dream that a daughter might be President. Back in 1893, many parents simply hoped that the child would survive past age five. Women didn’t have many rights. Perhaps they dreamed of a desirable spouse and a comfortable standard of living. Bring those universal human hopes into your story.

Often, we’re limit our stories to the dates of death and birth. What decisions did the person make? What choices did they have? What obstacles did they face? What resilience did they show throughout their lives?

Your connection matters

Let’s face it. If you have no personal connection to the person you’re writing about, you can’t really expect your readers to connect to him or her either. As you start your family story, think why did you like, love, or admire that person? Why did they matter to you? Why does their story matter?

Is there little something about them that makes them more relatable? More human?  (Read Sneaky Grandma.)

Your Turn

How have you made your family stories relevant to your readers?

Apr 142016
 

Bumper sticker covered car

Do you have something to say about yourself? Image by RHoch (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

How do you tell people who you are? How would you give them a bumper sticker synopsis of yourself? (Of course, you could ask why you’d want to do that as well. As Rob Walker argues, “…bumper stickers are about declaration, not dialogue.” But let’s put that aside and indulge in the exercise. Consider it a brainstorming activity.)

What Would your Bumper Sticker say?

If you could tell the world who you are in just a few words, what would you say? If you were forced to have a bumper sticker—even if you’re anti-bumper sticker like me– what would you put on it?

Are you such an open book that you’d have something on your bumper sticker that reveals who you really are? Or would it reveal a one-dimensional view of you?

Who or What matters to you

For years my sister has displayed two—not one—“I have a terrific kid” stickers on the back of her mini-van. She only has one kid. She claims her daughter added the second one for emphasis. In her daughter’s defense, she was little back then and who would expect that their mom would be driving the same minivan when she went to high school as when the sheriff’s department was giving out terrific kid stickers to 7 year-olds? Happily, my sister finally gave up her 200,000 mile +, 3 transmissions, re-welded-drivers-seat, and Takata airbag minivan a couple of months ago. She claims she’s on the lookout for the same sticker for the new car. She’ll probably find one.

Who are what matters to you the most? Why is it important to yell that from the rooftops?

What you’re comfortable with sharing

Some of us are more comfortable with sharing than others. Many people are at ease with a public persona, but still have a strong sense of privacy when it comes to their personal life. Many women my age, for instance, are a lot more comfortable sharing their “mom” status than anything else about themselves, even using pictures of their kids as their social media profile picture.

Would your bumper sticker synopsis of yourself be something that takes a stand? Or would it be something less likely to solicit an opposing viewpoint? This is my choice. I’d take the University of Michigan’s “I bleed Maize and Blue” and change it to “My Wallet Bleeds Maize and Blue.” I might even add an asterisk noting that it bleeds for in-state tuition. (We’re not rich, so don’t let that stop you from increasing my household income by buying my book.)

Who you’re not:

When would you like to have a name tag stating who or what you’re not?

When we had children at the same elementary school, people used to confuse me with my friend Kristin. In fact, it happened so often we still refer to each other as “Sis.”

When I was heading up the school science fair, Kristin wore a name tag that read “I’m not Laura Hedgecock.” (Truth be told, I made it for her. Kristin wasn’t looking forward to answering all the earnest little questioners and their parents with “I’m sorry, I’m not Laura Hedgecock.”)

For instance, what about politics? Does that ever make you want to have a name tag or bumper sticker that would distinguish you from the rest of your party?

Your Turn:

This makes a great writing prompt. Not just what you’d do, but why you’d choose to display that part of yourself. Why (or if) the decision would be hard. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Apr 072016
 
Time to take a stand with three people

There sometimes comes a time when keeping peace feels dishonest; it’s time to take a stand.

We want our memories and family stories to be warm and inviting. We want to welcome family into our lives—into our past—through our narratives.  Which is as it should be. But (you knew there was a but coming) that can mute us when it comes to issues that weigh heavily on our hearts and mind. Because not all our family members see things the same way, we self-censure, leaving out anything that is divisive. We don’t share the parts of ourselves that might alienate.

It’s like the old rule about not talking about religion and politics at the table. It keeps the peace, because it keeps anyone at the table from feeling marginalized.  We can focus on our commonalities, our friendship or familial love, without anyone feeling challenged.

Family Peace versus Honesty

Sometimes there comes a time when keeping your stance to yourself becomes—or feels—dishonest. You’re hiding something that you’re passionate about. You’re choking back hurt or offense on a regular basis.

Of course, only you can determine when it’s time to take a stand. You’re the only one in a position to determine if it’s worth crossing that line. You might choose deep breathing over a sparring match or negotiating a minefield of hurt feelings and estrangement.

When it’s Time to Take a Stand

My friend Bobby Ivory likes to say that meaningful discourse needs to “bring more light than heat.”  In other words, enlighten others without putting them on the defensive.  Not easy, I know, but worth the effort.

Writing allows you the luxury of ranting and raging to get your feeling onto paper, then editing those feelings into something you want to share with others. Something that will promote understanding. Insert your “I messages.”  Delete the accusations.

Using Stories to Take a Stand

Storytelling becomes the spoonful of sugar that makes the bitterest of medicine (or reality) go down. Not just in a metaphoric way. The cool people who study neuroscience have found that storytelling allows the listeners’ brain to process stories much differently than they do facts or debates. (Read The Science Behind Storytelling.)

Explain why you’re taking a stand

Please understand it's time to take a stand

Stories can promote understanding

Normally, when you tell your stories, you have the luxury of a friendly, captured audience. You’re ‘preaching to the choir.’ That’s not always the case when you take a stand.  Part of the art of persuasion is to invest your audience in your story. You can do that by explaining why you feel you have to take a stand.

You can even use a third person voice or example, if you don’t want to make the conversation a me-versus-you argument. For instance, if you’re opposed to North Carolina House Bill 2 (full disclosure, I am), you might tell the story of your good friend who is now uncomfortable traveling through the state and how you came to understand his or her situation. A simple rest stop becomes an anxiety attack. Perhaps he or she wonders why private decisions can’t simply remain private without having to suffer the humiliation of visiting an alternative restroom.

Touch hearts and imagination

Touch your readers’ hearts and imaginations by using sensory-rich examples that will help them envision your stance. For instance, when my sons asked why restrooms have to be gender specific in the first place, I tried to explain to them all the things that women do in bathrooms that are completely unrelated to relieving themselves. Since they claim I ruined dinner that day by talking about “adjusting the girls,” I figure I inspired their imaginations. (Apparently they think girls just do a super-thorough job of washing their hands and come out looking fabulous.)

Writing demeanor

When we speak, our body language helps us communicate. We can use open gestures, smiles, and friendly eye-contact to put listeners at ease. That’s harder in writing. As you write and edit, try to put yourself in your readers’ place. What turn of phrases would you use in speech to put them at ease?  How would you acknowledge and de-escalate their discomfiture? Incorporate those verbal tics into your writing.

Your Turn

When did you decide it was time to take a stand? How did that affect your story? How did you write (say) your piece?

 

Mar 282016
 
Your audience matters empty seats

Thinking about your audience can make you a better storyteller.

Whether you’re writing your own memories or writing your ancestors’ stories, thinking about your audience matters. Who you are writing for will affect the way you write. For instance, thinking about your audience will impact your choice of formal or informal voice as well as how in-depth your stories will be.

Writingcommons.org explains it well in their article, What to Think About When Writing for a Particular Audience,

Consider how you talk differently to young children than you do to your professors. When communicating with a child, you may use simple language and a playful or enthusiastic tone. With your professors, however, you may try out academic language, using bigger words and more complex sentences. Your tone may be more professional than casual and more critical than entertaining.

Continue reading »

Mar 172016
 
Love letters stack of cards

Should you read and share family love letters?

After reading an AARP article in which Marni Jameson recommended burning your parents love letters, Amy Johnson Crow published a well-worth-reading article on why love letters are irreplaceable family heirlooms.

The two come from different standpoints. Marni Jameson is a lifestyle expert; Amy Johnson Crow a genealogist. The point at which the two have apparently agreed to disagree is whether loved letters are meant to be passed down.  Ms. Jameson believes that they were never meant to be read by others, therefore reading and keeping them amounts to a posthumous invasion of privacy. Amy Johnson Crow points out that such letters, particularly love letters, give a precious viewpoint into the past.

I admit, Ms. Jameson’s viewpoint (better expressed in her comments on Amy Crow’s post than on AARP.org’s) gave me pause. She writes, “… I do believe a violation of privacy occurs when you find something personal and private meant for someone else and you invade that privacy.” Continue reading »

Mar 072016
 
Paula Williams Madison and her definition of family

Paula Williams Madison puts the definition of family in a new light.

During RootsTech, I had the opportunity to meet and interview Paula Williams Madison, author of Finding Samuel Lowe: Harlem, Jamaica, China. Of course, there’s a lot more to Paula than authoring a bestselling memoir and a documentary by the same name. She’s the former top NBC executive for diversity.  She’s the winner of many awards, such as being listed among the “75 Most Powerful African Americans in Corporate America” (Black Enterprise magazine) and one of “Outstanding 50 Asian Americans in Business” (Asian American Business Development Center).

Her long list of accomplishments don’t say it all. She’s also a warm and gracious woman—a pleasure to interview.

Here’s our interview. Paula had some helpful advice for family history writers. She talked about how to decide what to share and the meaning of family. Continue reading »

Mar 022016
 

Form connections through stories is like hand holdingWriting coaches can help us with everything from developing a story arc to using better grammar. But, as storytellers, that’s not always what we crave. Great writing is, well, great. But family storytellers don’t just want to write better; we want to form connections through stories of the past. We want to connect with our readers, our family, and our family history.

How to Form Connections through Stories of the Past

This isn’t just another writing hoop to jump through. It’s not hard to form connections through stories of the past. It’s more of a question of writing with passion—and letting a little more of yourself shine through your writing. Continue reading »

Feb 232016
 
Misrepresenting the past and preventing myths

How do keep those myths at bay? How do you avoid misrepresenting the past?

How do we avoid or minimize the risk of  misrepresenting the past as we tell our own and family stories? What exactly is our burden of due diligence when it comes to determining the accuracy of our narratives?

This isn’t my normal soap box about truth versus accuracy. Or at least not entirely. The truth of our experience often comes down to our unique memory of it. Our memory is our truth whether or not a sibling thinks it was a Pepsi and not a Coke. We’re not talking about that type of accuracy.

Can we avoid misrepresenting the past?

Continue reading »

Feb 192016
 

One of the big thrills of being a RootsTech Ambassador was getting to spend a few minutes with my cousin (in the Global Family Reunion way) AJ Jacobs.  Author or best-selling books such as A Year of Living Biblically and My Life as an Experiment, AJ also came up with the 2015 concept of a Global Family Reunion. He threw a party and invited all 7 billion people of earth.

AJ Jacobs is a kindred spirit when it comes to family history and storytelling. In fact, it was the fact that the Global Family Reunion offered a storytelling tent that drew me to the event in the first place.

AJ’s approaches writing about life quite differently than most authors. He doesn’t simply translate his life experiences into narrative. He experiments with life, then deconstructs what he learned into compelling reading. An admirable accomplishment as well as a generous life philosophy.

Here’s AJ Jacobs:

Important Takeaways:

Continue reading »