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?

Apr 142016
 

Bumper sticker covered car

Do you have something to say about yourself? Image by RHoch (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

How do you tell people who you are? How would you give them a bumper sticker synopsis of yourself? (Of course, you could ask why you’d want to do that as well. As Rob Walker argues, “…bumper stickers are about declaration, not dialogue.” But let’s put that aside and indulge in the exercise. Consider it a brainstorming activity.)

What Would your Bumper Sticker say?

If you could tell the world who you are in just a few words, what would you say? If you were forced to have a bumper sticker—even if you’re anti-bumper sticker like me– what would you put on it?

Are you such an open book that you’d have something on your bumper sticker that reveals who you really are? Or would it reveal a one-dimensional view of you?

Who or What matters to you

For years my sister has displayed two—not one—“I have a terrific kid” stickers on the back of her mini-van. She only has one kid. She claims her daughter added the second one for emphasis. In her daughter’s defense, she was little back then and who would expect that their mom would be driving the same minivan when she went to high school as when the sheriff’s department was giving out terrific kid stickers to 7 year-olds? Happily, my sister finally gave up her 200,000 mile +, 3 transmissions, re-welded-drivers-seat, and Takata airbag minivan a couple of months ago. She claims she’s on the lookout for the same sticker for the new car. She’ll probably find one.

Who are what matters to you the most? Why is it important to yell that from the rooftops?

What you’re comfortable with sharing

Some of us are more comfortable with sharing than others. Many people are at ease with a public persona, but still have a strong sense of privacy when it comes to their personal life. Many women my age, for instance, are a lot more comfortable sharing their “mom” status than anything else about themselves, even using pictures of their kids as their social media profile picture.

Would your bumper sticker synopsis of yourself be something that takes a stand? Or would it be something less likely to solicit an opposing viewpoint? This is my choice. I’d take the University of Michigan’s “I bleed Maize and Blue” and change it to “My Wallet Bleeds Maize and Blue.” I might even add an asterisk noting that it bleeds for in-state tuition. (We’re not rich, so don’t let that stop you from increasing my household income by buying my book.)

Who you’re not:

When would you like to have a name tag stating who or what you’re not?

When we had children at the same elementary school, people used to confuse me with my friend Kristin. In fact, it happened so often we still refer to each other as “Sis.”

When I was heading up the school science fair, Kristin wore a name tag that read “I’m not Laura Hedgecock.” (Truth be told, I made it for her. Kristin wasn’t looking forward to answering all the earnest little questioners and their parents with “I’m sorry, I’m not Laura Hedgecock.”)

For instance, what about politics? Does that ever make you want to have a name tag or bumper sticker that would distinguish you from the rest of your party?

Your Turn:

This makes a great writing prompt. Not just what you’d do, but why you’d choose to display that part of yourself. Why (or if) the decision would be hard. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Apr 072016
 
Time to take a stand with three people

There sometimes comes a time when keeping peace feels dishonest; it’s time to take a stand.

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

Please understand it's time to take a stand

Stories can promote understanding

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.)

Writing demeanor

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.

Your Turn

When did you decide it was time to take a stand? How did that affect your story? How did you write (say) your piece?

 

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 092016
 
Rootstech 2016 bag and badge

The badge and bag are in the suitcase, but is the RootsTech 2016 experience really over?

Inevitably—or at least nearly so—bloggers post summaries of their RootsTech experiences. Speaking and serving as a RootsTech 2016 Ambassador has been a whirlwind. I learned a lot and met a ton of wonderful people. It’d be nice to tie it up with a nice bow as I leave Salt Lake City.

On the other hand, it seems inappropriate.

Summaries feel like something has ended. And, although the conference is over—and I have the weariness to prove it—in many ways it hasn’t ended. Continue reading »

Feb 042016
 

Stories of the heart - heart specialists We all knew that I think that stories of the heart are the future of family history, but I have some good company. Steve Rockwood, CEO of FamilySearch International emphasized that in his opening keynote for Rootstech.

Serious genealogists made up the majority of the 12,000 in-person audience. (Estimates including online audience range up to 125,000.) “To get and keep non-genealogists’ attention,” Rockwell explained, “you have to focus on the person, not records.” He also emphasized that stories need to be short and meaningful–stories of the heart. Continue reading »

Jan 252016
 
Plot of your family story in library

Looking for the plot of your family story?

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. Continue reading »

Jan 182016
 
how individual is your story Venn chart

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.

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.

Continue reading »

Dec 092015
 
Typewriter writing someone else's story

What point of view will you use to tell someone else’s story?

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

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.

First person

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.

A void.

Your Turn

You choose. Which point of view will you use for your next story?