Aug 182017
 

When I joined Toastmasters to improve my public speaking, their emphasis on listening skills surprised me. It shouldn’t have. Listening, as opposed to simply hearing, is the key to effective communications.

Good listening skills facilitate meaningful conversations. The two of them together are indispensable when it comes to collecting stories.

 Listening skills and conversation keys to stories

Listening Skills help You Understand Stories

Simple conversations can bring an understanding of another culture alive. I had one such conversation years ago as my family drove through the Four Corners area of the US West.  When we saw a sign advertising dinosaur tracks, we turned in to investigate.  A Navajo guide met us and showed us the dinosaur tracks and much, much, more. Luckily, my curiosity overcame my natural distractibility. I listened has he explained where he lived. He pointed in the distance, identifying landmarks, not roads. The route number or state name was insignificant. The buttes, mesas, and mountains weren’t. His nation had very different demarcations than ours.

He showed us a square indention in the rock where “white men” had cut out dinosaur prints to put in a museum. The scar in the ground still rankled, but not due to theft. It was the logic that escaped him. Wouldn’t people prefer a walk in nature to see the prints than parking a car and go into a museum with limited hours?

Ten minutes of one-on-one conversation helped me understand the man before me. Because I listened, I gain a tad of insight into his culture.  (Before I choke on my halo, I should also mention that it’s quite possible that after hours in the car my brain was so saturated by Veggie Tale’s Silly Songs that adult conversation was a salve.)

How many times do we have the opportunity to take those 10 minutes and fail to do so. I’m sure I’ve passed up way too many.

Listening Paves the Way to Meaningful Conversations

Sometimes anonymity provides a comfort level that allows us to drop our defenses. This was the case recently outside of my favorite coffee shop. As my friends and I we left, we saw two beautifully dressed young women attempting to take a selfie. Volunteering to take it for them we learned they were celebrating Eid, the end of Ramadan. A few minutes of honest conversation educated us, starting with our efforts to pronounce Eid.

“How should a non-Muslim should greet a Muslim on Eid?” I asked. “Is ‘Happy Eid’ appropriate?”

They giggled. “Yes, that’s fine.” The giggle implied that perhaps there could be a better phraseology, but they explained. “You’re reaching out to understand our culture. Any way you greet us, acknowledging our faith and our celebration is enough.”

Perhaps that’s why around the holidays, Story Corps celebrates a National Day of Listening instead of a National Day of Storytelling.  It all starts withe the listening skills.

Listening Skills and Conversations with Loved Ones

If good listening skills can connect us with strangers, think what they can do with family members.  But those same listening skills might be harder with those we love.

SkillsYouNeed.com’s Listening Skills article explains some of the barriers to good listening skills:

For example, one common problem is that instead of listening closely to what someone is saying, we often get distracted after a sentence or two, and instead start to think about what we are going to say in reply. This means that we do not listen to the rest of the speaker’s message.

We may also get distracted by the speaker’s appearance, or by what someone else is saying, which sounds more interesting.

These issues not only affect you, but you are likely to show your lack of attention in your body language.

What’s striking about those barriers is that they’re more likely to crop up when we’re familiar with the person who’s speaking. We notice that grandma has a spot on her shirt and wonder if someone is helping her with the wash. That grandpa now has a lot of hairs growing out of his ears. That our son missed a spot when shaving. That our spouse is going down the same path that we’ve heard before. We want to avoid a potential political rant. We become unfocused.

Worse, the conversation becomes more about the thoughts in our heads than the memories in theirs.

Perhaps we have to try harder to be good listeners with those we love (or see often).

I wonder if I would have felt as free to ask questions if the two Muslim women had been co-workers. Perhaps my thoughts would have been so occupied with “What will they think of me?” and “Should I know this already?” that I wouldn’t have asked questions.

Your Turn:

When have good listening skills led you to a story you would have otherwise never heard?

Can’t think of one? Try it the next time you interview a family member about their past.  Let go of your agenda of questions to ask and be present in the moment. See if a different story emerges.

Other Resources:

Jul 172017
 

In storytelling as in life, we find ourselves wearing a variety of hats. The professional. The parent. The expert. The questioner. Some situations call for only one hat. Other times, we wear a combination. Which storytelling hat we don as we tell our own and family stories impacts how we’ll narrate the episodes of the past.

What storytelling hat are you wearing

You don’t have to choose just one, but you should choose. The act of sticking one or more on our heads should be intentional. Thinking about your role as the storyteller can help you handle some of those thorny situations that crop up.

Storyteller’s Hat

We’ll start with the storyteller’s hat. When we wear it we want to:

  • Entertain
  • Create Understanding
  • Preserve chapters of history
  • Form Connections

Most of the time, our inner storyteller influence is a good thing. The desire to form connections makes almost all of us better writers and storytellers, as does the drive to make our stories compelling.

As Diana Raab states in her 5 Tips on the Fine Art of Storytelling article, “When a story is told well, the listener is transported on a journey to a new place.” It opens readers eyes not only to what happened in one particular story, but what could have happened in that time and place. They can imagine living there.

While we discussed this in a recent class I taught, a participant raised his hand, perplexed. “What’s so wrong with embellishment? I’m the family storyteller. What does it matter if I change some details?” While my inner genealogist counted to ten, I invited his classmates to respond.

One questioned what it was that his audience wanted. “You said you’re here because your grandson urged you to write stories down. There are libraries full of good fictional stories. I think perhaps he wants to hear your true story.” Other classmates thought that as long as he didn’t try to sell the embellishments as truth, it was completely up to him.

Great food for thought. How attached are you to your storyteller’s hat?

Wearing the Biographer/Autobiographer/Historian/Genealogist’s Hat

Though they are no less invested in creating understanding and preserving history, these hats are more constraining. That doesn’t mean that historians et al aren’t great writers and storytellers. The Joe Friday, “Just the facts, Ma’am” reputation is unfair (not to mention misattributed). However, as they narrate the past, they make sure to:

  • Get the details right
  • Research and source
  • Provide historical context

And while they’re at it, the family historian hopes to discover ancestor’s and document generations past.

Writing while wearing your historian’s hat requires an adherence to the facts.  As Gore Vidal wrote in Palimpset “…an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.”[1]

Choosing the genealogist’s or historian’s hat, i.e., deciding to be ethically bound to provide an unbiased illumination of history, brings clarity to those “what not to tell” decisions.  Judy Russell, aka The Legal Genealogist, addresses this at length in her “Ethical Genealogist” lecture. (If you’re ever able to attend one, I highly recommend it.) An example she gives is that ethical genealogists can’t paint their slave-owning ancestors as well-loved by their slaves unless they’ve found evidence to back up that claim.

She also presents tips on deciding if leaving out part of the story is revising history. That’s a great measuring stick for all storytellers, regardless of their obsession—or lack-thereof—with finding their ancestors.

The Memorist’s Hat

Memorists storytelling hats Whether you’re penning a literary memoir or telling vignettes of your own life, the memoirist’s hat has a different feel to it. Its hatstrings are entangled with the delicate threads of fallible memory. Rather than research facts, the memoirist endeavors to

  • Tell their own “truth’
  • Focus on their personal memories
  • Narrate emotional events
  • Explain smaller parts of a life story

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen’s poignant article You or Your Memory: On writing memoir and family articulates the decisions memoirists face as they depict episodes that others might well remember differently.

I first thought that memoir was an exercise in linear cataloguing, but realise now that it’s about personal perspective and capturing significant moments and feelings. Memoirists and those close to them must recognise the fallibility and subjectivity of memory, and the fluid nature of narrative. Life influences art as much as art influences life.

The Advocate’s Storytelling Hat

The advocate’s hat goes well with other head-toppings. For instance, memorists describing traumatic episodes of their pasts often self-advocate. When thoughtful and ethical, it’s a noble hat. However, if you forget you’re wearing it under a historian’s hat, it can allow bias to creep into what you meant to be an impartial narrative, because advocates:

  • Seek to persuade
  • Have a declared bias (or should)
  • Represent the interests of one person above others

Some genealogists feel uncomfortable playing the advocate. They feel their role should always be to shine the light of historical and social context on the past, letting readers form their own conclusions. They want to light the entire scene, not to highlight only a narrow path leading to the back-door.

Finding myself incapable at times to walk the tightrope of even-handedness, I sometimes choose to wear the advocate’s hat unashamedly. For instance, even were I capable of it, I don’t feel it’s my role to explain any mitigating circumstances that might explain my great-grandfather abandoning his daughter. I wear the hat of a proud granddaughter, incensed at the neglect he subjected her to.

Your Turn

What storytelling hat do you wear as you narrate chapters of the past? Why does it work for you? What conflicts does it lead you into?

 

Image credit – background image of stacked hats: Morguefile standard license, user “clarita”

[1] As quoted from Gore Vidal in Palimpsest in “Two Possible Definitions for Memoir,” ReadWriteThink.org, accessed July 17, 2018, http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/lesson_images/lesson998/Definition.pdf.

Jun 302017
 

Most of us believe that family stories matter, but we’re hard put to explain why. Here’s what I came up with.Why Family Stories Matter

Family is more than the DNA in our cells, more than our biological relatedness. Family is a story in itself—a tale of where we came from. It includes what roads we traveled, what obstacles we faced, and who kept us safe and sane along the way. Family is built on our common experiences, both those that transpired over centuries and those that took place during a singular hot, miserable fourteen-hour trip in the back of a unairconditioned station wagon. It’s the recipes we’ve learned, elbow to elbow as Stacy Troilo likes to say. The bumps, bruises, heartache, healing, and loving that we shared. Sometimes it’s even the what-might-have-been.

Knowing (and Understanding) Family Stories Matter

In his 2013 The Family Stories that Bind Us New York Times article, Bruce Feiler reported an astounding finding. Investigating how to raise happy children, he concluded, “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” Research shows that children who know their family stories tended to have more resilience.

When you think about how the brain digests stories differently than it processes facts, it makes sense that family stories matter to a child’s development. Stories connect us to characters. That’s doubly powerful when the “characters” are family members. Though thinking of a little train saying, “I think I can, I think I can” is great, knowing Uncle Joe overcame incredible odds is more inspiring.

My maternal grandmother came from a background that could have easily produced a resentful, bitter person. That would have been a normal and sane response to poverty and abandonment. Knowing that and having known the depth of her generous, loving and positive personality through her stories, make the word inspiring seem like faint praise.

Her past—her story—shores me up when I feel slighted. I realize that I too can rise above ugliness and not let it change me. Not to mention that the slights I face don’t even compare to what she faced.  Perspective is a good thing.

I also think of my dear friend John. His grandparents raised him. He had little contact with his mother and never met his father. For him, “family history” is place of rootlessness. I’m not saying he’s not resilient. He is. However, I do think it’s come at a higher price for him.

I also think of hearing LeVar Burton speak at RootsTech last February. He stressed that everyone needs to know where they came from to make their own story complete.

The Telling of Family Stories Matters

A storyteller and an audience comprise a dialogue, a conversation. Family storytelling goes far beyond an entertaining rendition of past events, because our telling, like our stories, has a rich subtext.

Family storytellers aren’t motivated by a need to sit on center stage and enjoy the limelight. They have a need to connect. A desire to comfort and commiserate and celebrate when they’re not physically present.  The nurturing you tacitly express by storytelling is part of your story. Your listeners or readers get that. That’s part of a bond.

A story of getting in trouble for playing hooky from school, for example, tells your reader (or listener) that you didn’t start off perfect. That you’ve been in someone’s ill favor. Perhaps most importantly, you’re explaining that when it happens to them, it’s not going to be the end of the world.

Family Stories: Meant for Sharing

Paul Tritschler articulates it elegantly.

“We don’t become any less by sharing. Stories are part of the fabric of who we are, but only in sharing our life experiences do we develop a sense of self. … Stories cultivate the frequently forgotten yet uniquely human traits that are crucial in building solidarity.”

When I was expecting my second, I tried to stave off any growing feelings of resentment that might be stirring in my eldest son’s belly against the child growing in mine. My go-to exercise was what I called the “love candle.” The love candle was a glass dish filled with wax and three wicks.

Love candle illustrates sharing family stories After lighting the first wick, I’d turn of the lights and explain how lighting the other two wicks (him and his sibling-to-be) didn’t diminish the first flame. As three, they burned brighter. I hoped he’d get how our growing family would only brighten the light of love in our house.

At two, he may not have fully digested my metaphor. He could count to three and thought three people were enough of a family.

You, on the other hand, have realized that the love candle metaphor works for our family stories. Sharing them not only increases the illumination for the hearer. It spreads the connections, ones that can continue to burn even after our own flame is extinguished.

Jun 162017
 

In her ongoing Remember the Descendants blog party, Elizabeth O’Neal asks family historians how they plan to preserve genealogical research for future generations.

Remember the Descendants empty page

Don’t leave a blank page. Remember the descendants in your family tree by preserving genealogical information

The question is well-put for all memoirists and family storytellers. We’re creating a legacy. Even if you don’t know much about your family’s genealogy, preserving what you do know is important.

Preserving Roots, Not Just Branches

Knowing where you came from matters. We hear stories, again and again, about how knowing one’s roots has made a difference. LeVar Burton had a particularly poignant one. I have a couple of my own, which you’ll find peppered throughout this blog.

The Global Family Reunion party I hosted two years ago also brought this home. Though few of the attendees were hard core (or even light core, for that matter) family historians, most showed up with a precious stack of papers, notebook, or chart that Aunt So-and-so had put together years ago. My friend Judy had a single sheet of paper with what her father, then 93, could remember about family names and places.

These unremarkable-looking treasures were heirlooms which connected them to their roots.

Including Family History in Your Legacy of Stories

There are a multitude of ways to preserve that you know about your family’s genealogy. Below are just a few ideas.

Scrapbooking:

You can look at the tutorials on this site or create your own design. Almost every craft store has family tree or family history pages and layouts. When you need inspiration, Stacy Julian’s “a very fruitful tree” site is packed full of great ideas that merge scrapbooking and storytelling. I’ve also pinned quite a few layouts on my Scrapbooking Pinterest board.

Family Bible or Holy Book

Writing names and birth and death dates was a tradition born of necessity before the advent of hospital births and birth certificates. Wouldn’t continuing to honor this tradition make a wonderful gift? Whether it’s a new Bible you purchase for a young person or using your best penmanship (or even a calligraphy pen) to preserve information in your aunt’s dog-eared tome, loved ones will appreciate it.

Remember the Descendants by Writing a Family History Book

You don’t have to have a file cabinet full of genealogical information to start thinking about compiling a family history book. This allows you to combine the stories with the facts. (Hmm. I feel a blog series coming on.)

Digitizing Old Films so the Whole Family Can Enjoy Them

box of memories in the closetDisclosure: I represent Legacy Republic (affiliate link), a company that does just that. It’s not simply a matter of preserving old VHS tapes that are degrading to put them back in the same closet in another, albeit longer-lasting, format. You can remember the descendants by making your past accessible to them and sharing it with them. Those old photo albums and 8mm films can work as story prompts.

Journaling

Journaling isn’t what it used to be when I wrote in my diary in high school. Or at least, it’s not necessarily that.  Though it can be the portal through which you dump your deepest and most embarrassing thoughts, journals also make a great way to preserve memories, stories, and love for the next generation.  Pinterest, of course, makes a great source of inspiration.  But keep in mind, it doesn’t have to look like Martha Stewart’s staff put it together for it to connect.  My grandmother’s journal was barely legible (I’m not endorsing that, mind you), but we love it immensely.

Need more Ideas?

Below are just a few posts in which family history and storytelling intersect.

 Your Turn:

How do plan to preserve genealogical information for your descendants? Leave me a comment or join in Elizabeth’s Remember the Descendants Blog Party (open through June 2017).

 

Jun 062017
 

Finding your tribe, the group of people that supports you, or supports a cause you’re invested in, can make all the difference. Finding your tribe or people you can be you with Knowing you can let your hair down and be yourself is comforting and exhilarating. When it happens, it’s worth writing about.

I experienced this during the last two weeks. A group of family historians came together, interested in maintaining the blogging resources at Geneabloggers.com as curator Thomas MacEntee moved on to other endeavors.  Continue reading »

Apr 252017
 

Romance stories aren’t only for the young. We’ve always known that. But still, it’s the stories of youthful innocence and falling in love that make the best seller lists. The stories of couples entering their seventh decade of marriage make the back pages.romance stories one for the ages

But those long relationships started somewhere, a lot of times with young love. And these stories get better with age.

Last week I sat in a hospital room with two people I dearly love, both in their mid-eighties. A palliative care professional was trying to get the man, recovering from a stroke, to think about “outcomes” and “interventions.” She asked, “How would you feel about it, if you couldn’t go home? If you had to go to a nursing facility?” Continue reading »

Feb 212017
 

A keynote speaker at RootsTech’s first-ever African Heritage Day, LeVar Burton taught us about storytelling and reaching hearts and minds. By the end, he also had us all reaching for tissues.

LeVar Burton Taught Us about storytelling

During his keynote address at RootsTech, LeVar Burton taught us about storytelling. Photo courtesy of Edgar Gomez

This isn’t another report on my fabulous time at the RootsTech genealogy conference. It’s a testimony on how great storytelling can change perspectives. I just hope I can do it justice. Continue reading »

Feb 102017
 
Apps for family storytellers innovator summit

This year’s Innovator Summit featured several great apps for family storytellers

RootsTech is a great place to discover apps for family storytellers. In fact, Rootstech is to storytellers as Virginia is to lovers. A homeplace. A source of inspiration. A show case of innovation.

Innnovator Summit’s Apps for Storytellers

Although FamilySearch’s Steve Rockwood advised innovators to look beyond the storytelling, thankfully a couple of this year’s innovators didn’t get the memo.

Emberall helps you let loved ones tell their own stories in their own words via short video clips. Which, according to Embrell’s Karen Corbitt, is the preferred format for millennials.

When downloaded on an Android or iOS smart phone, the app guides users through creating an album and interview question prompts. Using the smart phone’s video, loved ones record their responses. Better yet, Emberall tags and categorizes the video clips, making them easy to find and share. You can also upload the videos to presentation quality DVDs.

Tony Knight of Qroma wins 2nd place

Qroma Tag and Tony Knight won the 2nd place price in the Innovator Showdown

QromaTag came from innovator Tony Knight’s desire to uncover the stories behind the photos his father left behind when he died. Tony asks, “How many times have you looked at a photo and wondered what was going on? If it was a print, you might be tempted to flip it over to see if anything was written on the back.” Sadly, those of us who’ve been obsessively scanning photos for years haven’t taken the time or had the expertise to add meta data to the photo file.  (Metadata is bits and bytes of information stored in photo files.)

Luckily, Tony knows more about things like EXIF, IPTC, Voice Recognition and standard outputs than the average bear. With QromaTag, you can record the exact GPS coordinates of the place your grandparents’ home used to stand. In addition, you can use—get this—voice recognition to tag photos with names, places, and even 2000 characters to attach “the most important parts of a story” to the photo.  This makes finding the photos to use in stories much easier. It’s currently available for iOS, but will be out soon for Android.

Qroma Tag won 2nd place in the RootsTech Innovator Showdown.

Previous Innovation Summit Winners

Twile.com (Last year’s Innovator Showdown People’s choice winner) “makes your family history more visual and engaging” with the creation of timelines and aesthetically pleasing info-graphics. Though Twile can pull family’s memories, photos and stories in the same place, it can also be used to enhance your stories. For family history buffs, their partnership with FamilySearch makes them even more attractive. “Twile” comes from “erstwhile” and is now completely free to use.

Storyworth.com (the 2015 Innovator Showdown winner) helps with the problem of getting stories from loved ones who probably would never get around to writing themselves.  A subscription service, loved ones (or you) will receive weekly story prompts. They can respond via email or phone and those stories are kept on an ad-free private server.

Other Apps for Family Storytellers

Storycorps’ app  remains at the top of my list.  Like many other apps, it offers prompts to facilitate interviews, but it offers the users a chance to upload their interview to the Library of Congress. In my experience, these interviews are stilted questions and answers, but rather include a lot of heart.

Rev.com transcription for voice recorders, intrigues Valerie Brown Eichler, a friend who blogs at familycherished.com. Imagine, recording your oral history interviews and having a service that automatically transcribes the interview.  Neither one of us have tried it out for accuracy, but it’s definitely one to watch.

Your Turn:

What are your favorite storytelling apps?  Let me know!

Jan 172017
 

Who do you think you are logo The popular TV show Who Do You Think You Are? provides some valuable storytelling insight that we can apply to the narratives of our ancestors.  Despite the professional genealogists, unlimited travel budget and celebrities, the show also has some practical storytelling wisdom for memory and family history writers. Continue reading »

Oct 292016
 
First Lines of Ancestor stories

Photo Credit Wikipedia Commons

It’s hard to know where to start writing your ancestor stories. Sometimes it helps to look at potential stories  from different perspective.  Instead of looking at the plethora of facts and deciding what to write, look at the following first lines for story ideas.

Which relative or ancestor do they remind you of?  What stories could you tell about them? Choose a few prompts and try writing a vignette or two.  If you were born before 1950, many of these will also work for your own memories. Continue reading »