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.
Any memorist or memory writer can use those same pieces of context to enhance their storytelling and to prevent an unintended tint of judgement from leaching into their stories.
How Historical Context Helps Readers
Many times, we write about circumstances that are difficult for readers to envision. If they were raised in a different generation, part of the country, or in a different faith or ethnic group, readers may not fully “get” your story. They may fail to grasp the nuances.
I had such an experience once with my five-year-old niece, who I had asked to be the flower-girl at my wedding. Her mother was (still is) an excellent seamstress, so we took Breanna to pick out a dress pattern for her dress. I was having a Christmas wedding and I wanted Brea to wear ivory.
It was soon apparent that Brea couldn’t envision herself in an ivory dress. Repeatedly, she’d point to patterns which depicted a flower girl wearing a pink dress. I’d ask her, “Would you like this dress just as much if it were white?” Of course, she wouldn’t. Her world-view said that beautiful dresses were pink. It wasn’t until she saw beautiful dresses that weren’t pink that she began to accept the fact that she could be happy in an ivory-colored dress.
Our stories need to make the same kind of break-throughs with our readers when we write about unfamiliar settings. If we leave readers to place the fabric of their own childhood over the pattern of our stories, their understanding of the story can differ from the one we meant to tell. And they may not ever get, how pretty a little girl can look in ivory, metaphorically speaking.
Research can Spark Readers’ Imaginations
I admit, there was a time in my life when I would have scoffed at the idea of research bringing anything alive. I thought of it in terms of index cards and foot notes and teachers taking points off.
But think about telling the story of your parents meeting at a dance in the 1940s. If you had a photo of your parents around that time, you’d include it. You’d want your readers to know how they looked and what they were apt to wear.
But why stop there? You can use your friend Google to look up what song was on the top of the charts that month. You can include what dance steps were popular. Technically, that’s research, but it’s anything but boring.
Research and Memoir: Using Lenses of the Past as Filters
Think about photo filters. They often correct lighting problems or highlight little details. Research can do that too. It can act as a filter. Historical context can it helps readers understand what may have happened fifty years (or more) ago, and can also shield the characters of our past from judgement. In many cases, that’s a good thing.
In a recent memoir class I conducted, a participant was reluctant to write about a hurtful episode of her past. As a young woman in the 1940s, her mother forced her to give up a scholarship to college. She had to stay home and work so she could help put her brother through college. She didn’t want to offend any family members by writing about the hurt of being told she couldn’t pursue an education.
In her case, historical context helps her write an even-handed account of her mother. Her mother wasn’t trying to be mean. She was doing what she thought was best. If she chooses to write about it, she can portray her mother as a product of her time, not as a villain.
A genealogist colleague named Sue Cromwell believes that we shouldn’t impose our 21st century values on the past. She explains, “Understand that there were any number of influences that affected the decisions and choices they made for themselves and their families.” She’s right. Sharing the context of previous eras leaves readers in a better position to form their own conclusions. Was a character in your story a neglectful father or was he a man working three jobs to put food on the table? Was a mother a religious nut or just like every other woman living in that community?
Research and memoir go together, illuminating the past.
Stay tuned for “Useful Genealogy Tools for Memoirists and Memory Writers”