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.

For argument’s sake, let’s take death, the ultimate individual event. We all face it alone. Yet, its aftermath is anything but. Think how many lives are affected by a loved one. And, when the death was untimely, violent, or it happened to a child, the waves of life-changing grief and horror grow exponentially.

The uttermost individual rite of passage can bring entire communities to their knees.

It works two ways. We impact others’ lives and they impact ours. We bump up against others as they journey, and that contact influences our own story. Sometimes in almost imperceptible ways. Other times the collision of bodies causes a life-changing alteration in our orbit.

How Individual is Your Story? What Freud Would Say

How individual is your story? No man is an island.Cue the Austrian accent, as Freud rubs his chin and repeats the question. “How individual is your story? Just look at what your mother did to you! “

In fact, that’s been the theme of more than a few memoirs. Despite that, many of us hesitate to include others in our stories. We gloss over the roles others played if those roles were anything but idyllic.

I’m not trying to start any family feuds. I recognize that writing about others is a personal and sensitive decision.

On the other hand, think hard before you ignore these corollary stories. Think of the power they might have for your readers. For instance, a sibling of the exact same circumstances that turned out quite differently than you can illuminate your choices. Resentment of a great aunt might actually be a story of protecting or advocating for someone else.

These are precious opportunities to connect with others. To share not just benchmarks and love stories, but stories of heartbreak and resilience. Stories that connect and resonate.

When you don’t tell your story—or leave out important parts, you do a disservice to that Venn chart that the rest of the world sees. You leave it without labels. You’ve given it no explanation. Others are left to make all sorts of assumptions about the person you are, not to mention the road you had to travel to get there.

A chart isn’t humanizing. A story is. Especially a story that isn’t pretty and perfect.

Your Turn:

How individual is your story? How individual do you want it to be?

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?

Nov 302015
 
Manger scene- stories worthy of the nativity

Read how our stories are as precious as gold, frankincense and myrrh, making them gifts worthy of the Nativity.

We Christians often struggle to counter commercialism’s sirenic come-hither calls as we begin our gift shopping. We’ve learned, over the years, at least in theory, how keep the hectic and to do lists from robbing us of the spirit of Christmas. We focus on the gift of the Christ child. And, as we shop, we contemplate gifts of the Nativity and their meaningfulness.

However, following the example of shepherds and magi before the manger is a tall order. How do we compete with gold, frankincense and myrrh?

The answer?

Understanding the gifts placed before the manger thousands of years ago brings home the impetus to package the past for loved ones. Stories are gifts not available in retail stores, but that come from the stores of the heart. Continue reading »

Nov 232015
 
National Day of Listening Logo

The National Day of Listening encourages us to “Ask Great Questions. Share Great Stories.”

The day after Thanksgiving has its own traditions. Leftover day. Get out the Christmas Decorations Day (my house). The ironic Black Friday.

It’s also StoryCorps’ National Day of Listening. Unlike Black Friday, when we’re encouraged to eschew all our thankfulness and contentedness, the National Day of Listening nurtures the feelings of gratitude.

Suggestions for National Day of Listening

For StoryCorps, listening is only the first step of the National Day of Listening. They also encourage participants to record and upload interviews to share with family and friends and StoryCorps followers. Continue reading »

Nov 022015
 
Lincoln Cathedral facade looking for bond with 20th great grandmother

Gazing up at the Lincoln Cathedral’s facade, I tried to imagine it as my 20th great grandmother would have seen it.

Visiting Lincoln (UK), I wanted an emotional bond with my 20th great grandmother. Foolish as it sounds, I wanted to get a feel for her life. I wanted to know her a little.

Unlike London, which has changed so much over the centuries, Lincoln felt like a place where my forbearers might materialize. As my son and I munched on sandwiches in Minster square, the echoes of centuries of footsteps were almost audible. I could imagine my 14th century relatives, walking through the gates and looking upon the Lincoln Cathedral’s already centuries-old beautiful façade.

A horse-drawn carriage pulled up, taking on a mother and son for a city tour. The boy was sporting a wooden shield and sword as well as an impish smile. I wondered how many times that scenario occurred in the 558 years between my 20th great grandmother’s death and my birth?

Can such basic human experiences roll the centuries away? Continue reading »

Oct 222015
 
Social Media to tell your stories with likes and dislikes

Does it make sense to use social media to tell your stories? Will it help you find the audience the episodes of your past warrant?

There are apps that will compile your Facebook posts into a book—like a personal version of World book Encyclopedia’s Yearbooks. It’s an interesting idea, but does it make sense to use social media to tell your stories?

If I were to compile my posts into a story, I’m not even sure I’d be interested in it. Last summer, for instance, I posted various pictures of birds, frogs, and turtles distributed between public confessions about lame-brained things I’d done. If I bore myself, how would readers receive it?

But perhaps that’s my fault. I wonder if people would be more invested if I put myself  more “out there.” On the other hand, even though I’m willing to wear my heart on my sleeve in speaking engagements, books, and this blog, something about social media makes me more emotionally reticent. Baring my soul isn’t quite like putting my life story on a bumper sticker, but it’s on that spectrum somewhere. Continue reading »

Sep 212015
 
Cemetery photo with saying representing a fata morgana

The stories of the past aren’t a fata morgana, they’re just waiting for you to give them voice.

Cemeteries don’t deserve their spooky reputation. Sure, they’re full of dead people (cue my father-in-law’s obligatory joke about “people just dying to get in there”), but they’re more than that.

They are the final resting place of our grief, a place where we can go and pay respects, one of the places where we can grope for some sort of continued connection to loved ones. They’re that and more.

Cemeteries are places where long-forgotten stories intermingle. Continue reading »

Sep 142015
 
Telling your own story illustrated by handwritten journal

Do you have to decide between telling your own story and telling family stories? I think not.

Deciding whether to tell your personal memories versus family stories is the memoirist’s version of “Who ya gonna call?” (Cue Ghostbusters music in the background.)

Perhaps the question is wrong. You don’t have to decide between telling your own story versus telling family—or even ancestor—stories. This isn’t a case of choosing “All of the above” because you’re not sure of the correct answer. Continue reading »