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.

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.

Bridal family

The flower girl in question

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.

Next Post:

Stay tuned for “Useful Genealogy Tools for Memoirists and Memory Writers”

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 212016
 
Reunions are stories of family

Relatives, In-laws, or friends, reunions are a great place to restore relationships and recover faded memories.

Until last weekend, I had forgotten how poignant reunions can be. Whether it’s family, school, or something else, reunions allow you to reconnect with the past. Not only are they great places to re-color some of those faded memories, they refresh the soul. 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 »

May 272016
 
What else have you lost quote by Havelock Ellis

What else have you lost? How did that loss teach the fine art of living?

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?

Loss of a Relationship, Sense of Identity

A loss of a relationship can also entail a loss of an identity. Our worldview changes when life chooses to make an illegal U-turn.

Recently, a friend of mine when through a time of anguish that makes me feel neurotic grieving over my perfectly normal empty nest. Her 20-year-old daughter disappeared from a rehab facility in a major city many hours away from home. For two eternally long months, there was no sign of her child.

Finally, by chance, driving along a major thoroughfare in her own city, she spotted her daughter. The reunion was also a moment of heartbreak. My friend has a hard time talking about it. Though she temporarily located her daughter, my friend’s world had shifted on its axis. In addition to missing her daughter’s physical presence in her home—in her life, the shroud of adulthood that her daughter now possesses limits her ability to help her child who suffers from mental illness and addiction.

When have you had to make peace with a new version of “normal”? A divorce, job loss, or career change can also spark feeling of a loss of identity. How did you right yourself? How did you regain your sense of self? These make great stories, stories with the power to connect across generations.

Innocence Lost

Another friend tells of her pre-teen loss of innocence. The Oakland County child killer and the panic he instilled in the entire Detroit metro area robbed her and her friends of carefree afternoons, riding bikes to each other’s houses. Of going out to play out from under the anxious, watchful eyes of their parents. The bubble of invincibility that buffets children against the horrors of the adult world popped. In its place came an imagination that ran rampant. It colored not only her own development, but the eventual choices she would make as a parent.

Loss of Physical Ability, Memory

There are things that our mortal, frailer-than-we’d-like-to-admit bodies cheat us out of as well. They betray our still active minds by refusing to work, or at least work as well as we’d like. They force us to fight disease instead of those life battles we want to mount.

Perhaps you’ve had to bear helpless witness as a particularly cruel disease causes a family member to misplace memories, even their sanity. Past moments, even the recognition of loved ones, fade into oblivion. Consider writing about these moments of heartache; they tell stories of love and devotion.

What else have you lost?

Along the road, whether by virtue of physical maladies or of the life sh** that happens, we lose things. Intangible things. Confidence. Independence. Hope. Faith. Courage. Our groove.

Don’t you think these moments are important to share? What would you want your loved ones, especially those of future generations, to take away from your story? Of course, they’ll be touched by your loss, but they can also learn from your healing or your renewed perspective. Perhaps they’ll even discover that resilience isn’t inborn, but something that can be gathered along the way, even on the roughest, dirtiest roads.

Havelock Ellis is quoted as saying, “All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.” Let your loved ones know how you did that.

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?

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 012016
 

Writing Your Family Story in your MemoirI was excited and honored to join Linda Joy Myers of the National Association of Memoir Writers to discuss how to writing your family story in your memoir on January 22, 2016. The initial airing was membership only, but Linda Joy has offered me an audio transcript for my readers. Continue reading »