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.

May 252017
 

A blog or Facebook? Which is better for sharing family history? It’s a question that been going around the genealogy community for the last month or so.Blog or Facebook

Having one foot in the writers’ community and one foot in the family history crowd, the question surprised me. I don’t think it would have come up in an authors’ group. Writers look at it as both, not either or. Probably because “platform building” has become a necessity as authors’ are increasingly forced into functioning as entrepreneurs. They wield whatever tools they can put their hands on and use effectively. Blogging and Facebook come immediately to mind. Continue reading »

Feb 022017
 
Divided households picture of torn photo of house

Does your family story include issues which divided households?

Throughout time, people have disagreed with the people they love. Issues of childrearing, money, faith, culture, religious practices and politics have, on occasion, divided households and hardened hearts. You might immediately think of the present political environment, but this isn’t the first time in history that issues have created emotional schisms among family members and friends

Sometimes, if the animosity has been put to rest, it’s best to leave the story alone like the proverbial sleeping dog. There’s nothing to be gained from revisiting and possibly re-igniting tensions. Continue reading »

Dec 012016
 
Genealogy resources for Memoirists

Genealogy resources for memorists help bring history to life

If you didn’t read Do Memoir and Research Belong Together? you might wonder why’d I compile a list of genealogy resources for memoirists and memory writers. Before you yell, “BAHHHH Research” and run (or click) away, stay with me. This list of genealogy resources for memoirists will help you incorporate historical details that bring your memories to life. The facts you gleam make a great way to “show, not tell” the settings of your stories, increasing your readers’ understanding of your past.

Continue reading »

Nov 172016
 
Research and memoir

Whether it’s online or in the library stacks, research and memoir belong together.

Do research and memoir belong together? Counter intuitive as it sounds, the answer is yes.  Though it is true that memoir involves writing about the episodes of your past that already exist in your memory, research can enhance your story.  Adding researched details from the past can bring your story alive for your readers.

Working with family historians writing their ancestor’s stories brings this home. They not only provide the meticulously researched (and cited) facts for readers. When they write about their ancestors, they often include a rich background of historical and social context.  They don’t do this to fill in the gaps between facts. They use their research to help their readers visualize the events of the past. Continue reading »

Sep 152016
 
Beauty and family Stories--like painting a mask

Often when we tell our stories, beauty and family stories go together. But should they?

Do beauty and family stories go together? Should they? When we leave a photographic record for prosperity, we’re all smiles. Why not do the same for our legacy of family stories?

Most of us want to present ourselves in a positive light. Maybe not quite perfect, but normal. We want to cover the blemishes. We may not be the Cleaver family, but we keep mute about the family disfigurements, the bad times. Continue reading »

Jul 292016
 
Fears our Ancestors faced in the Dance of Death

The “Dance of Death” stained glass windows in the Bern, Switzerland Munster give a graphic illustration of the fears our ancestors faced.

Understanding the fears our ancestors faced can help us understand their lives. That, in turn, can help us tell their stories. Although it’s hard to know from the meager records we unearth whether an ancestor was an introvert or adventurer, we can form some theories based on historical context. We can also get a better grasp on their everyday lives. Continue reading »

Jul 082016
 
Invisible illnesses and daily pills

Chronic and invisible illnesses can separate from family members that need to hear our stories

If you’re like me, chronic and invisible illnesses come towards the bottom of the list of things you’d like to write about yourself. It’s not just immersing yourself in the negativity. Although the term “invisible illness” applies “to any medical condition that is not outwardly visible to others,” according to Social Work Today, some illnesses (heart disease, cancer) seem to generate support from loved ones, while others leave sufferers socially isolated.

Many with invisible illnesses frequently encounter people who, although they’ve never had a license to practice medicine feel beholden to second guess other people’s health status or dispense dismissive medical advice. Continue reading »

Jun 272016
 
Silver linings behind broken hearts

Are there silver linings behind the heart-break in your family stories?

Last week, however, a friend showed me how to look for silver linings.

The news is often disturbing, but in the last couple of weeks the horrors that some people will inflict on others makes me want to run and hide. Only I don’t know where I’d go. Continue reading »

Jun 162016
 
Truth and Accuracy scrabble tiles

How do you deal with the elusiveness of truth and accuracy in memories and family stories?

The fallibility of memory can make truth and accuracy hard to come by. Competing versions of the same stories—the same memories—dance and whorl around family tables every get together. One person remembers it was a Sunday in July. A sibling insists it was in October and a Sunday.

How do you decide which version is true? What details are accurate? Perhaps a better question is how do you decide if the details of the story are worth fighting about.

Often the answer lies in understanding the difference between truth and accuracy as well as your own role as storyteller.

Truth versus Accuracy Continue reading »