Grief often rears its dark, draining head, not just when someone dies. The onset of many life crises is the loss of something. A relationship, a value, a sense of purpose. We’ve all experienced a loss of a pet or cherished object (See Writing Your Lost and Found Story.) But what else have you lost during your lifetime?
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…
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
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.)
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.
When did you decide it was time to take a stand? How did that affect your story? How did you write (say) your piece?
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.
Writing 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.
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?
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:
Christopher Booker postulates that all stories encompass only seven plots. It’s interesting reading and makes me wonder if the same is true of family stories. If you had to choose, how would you describe the plot of your family story? (Hint: You don’t have to choose just one, plotlines are like roots—they love getting tangled up.)
As the number of ancestors grows exponentially, so do the plots. One line of the family might embody a completely different narrative than the other. And, rather than intertwining, those plots might have collided in an epic crash.
Why do I ask? Should you try to shoehorn your family’s past into a common boot?
Of course not. But… As you chase down individual stories in your family tree, often a larger story of the family comes to light. An identity. For those just getting to know it, explaining the overarching plot of your family story can frame your family’s history eloquently.
How individual is your story? Sounds like one of those “Eh?” questions. Your story is absolutely individual. Unique. No one else has felt it like you have. No one else can tell it like you can. It’s yours. But perhaps not only yours.
Most of us are like human Venn charts. Our individuality is unassailable, yet our every action, our very circumstances, have a sphere of influence on those around us.
It’s nothing new. John Donne’s “No Man Is an Island” expressed this eloquently back in the 17th century. The individuality of our personal story is at best a contradiction—perhaps even an illusion.
It’s seems counter-intuitive, especially for a collection of memories, but telling someone else’s story is something we do all the time. Think about Christmas. Family stories. We tell stories that have been passed down over generations, even centuries.
We tell other people’s stories because their stories have had a bearing on our journey. They have touched us, informed us, or inspired us. And sadly, we often tell someone else’s story because they never got around to preserving it themselves. The audience becomes the storyteller.
Choosing a Point of View to Tell Someone Else’s Story
Point of view simply refers to what “voice” we use as we tell stories. We can choose between first person (such as “I went to the store,” or “We adopted a puppy.”) or third person (such as “She had her ninth baby in 1921.”).
Third person, the voice of a narrator, offers an intuitive choice for telling someone else’s story. You can take the voice of a bystander, removing yourself from the story. This allows the facts themselves to inform and teach. The reader can form his or her own conclusions. (After all, this is the voice of parables.)
Journalists prefer third person because it projects a lack of bias. Note the emphasis on projects. Make no mistake. You can still influence the reader through your word choices.
Third person works well for stories that have been passed down. You can let your audience read or hear the story the same way you heard it.
Too often, we overlook opportunities to use first person to tell stories. We remember our English teacher in high school telling us that it’s too informal.
I beg to differ. First person offers a warmth and personality difficult to achieve in third person. By using first person, you insert yourself into the story or volunteer yourself to act as a filter for readers.
In his article, 25 Things You Should Know About Narrative Point-Of-View, Chuck Wendig points out that the choice between first and third person often determines the level of intimacy between the storyteller and readers. Third person, though objective, provides a small window through which readers can witness the story. First person, on the other hand, allows readers to experience the story along with you, the narrator.
Telling someone else’s story in first person makes a warm invitation into your family’s past.
Comparing First and Third Person
I’ve used both first and third person to tell my grandmother’s story. Compare the two narratives.
Third Person Narrative
Grandma Wilkinson’s mother died when she was six. After that point, because her father ‘elected not to raise her,’ Grandma grew up in a children’s home. She had no memories of her father—she could only remember his surname was Dunaway.
First Person Narrative
My Grandma Wilkinson’s mother died when she was six. After that point, she said, her father ‘elected not to raise her.’ Sadly, at the turn of the century—this would have been 1902—it wasn’t unusual for a father to drop a child or children off at an orphanage if they weren’t able, or willing, to raise them. This, grandma said, is what happened to her.
Late in her life, due to what her doctors called arterial sclerosis, Grandma repeated herself often. This is one of the stories she’d retell. I can remember it, plain as if it were yesterday. Grandma in “her” chair, mom on the sofa and me in the floor. Grandma pulling a tissue out of her bra—that’s where she kept them—dabbing her eyes and struggling to remember. “Dunaway,” she’d say through her tears. “I think my father’s last name was Dunaway.” It was heart-wrenching to watch.
Not only was there no genealogist in the family—there were no memories. There was no knowledge of her relatives.
You choose. Which point of view will you use for your next story?