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.
Last week, however, a friend showed me how to look for silver linings.
The news is often disturbing, but in the last couple of weeks the horrors that some people will inflict on others makes me want to run and hide. Only I don’t know where I’d go.
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
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.)
How have you made your family stories relevant to your readers?
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?
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?
For most, that maturity takes place over time. Too often, though, it turns on a dime. Everything changes as the bubble of invincibility pops.
OK, our youthful idea of invincibility was a mirage. But the mirage lent us a feeling of security in an out-of-control world. We knew bad things, even terrible things, could happen. However, until the shoe dropped very close to our backdoor, we were able to view the possibility through a protective gauze of denial.
Once you’ve experienced it, other stories of innocence lost evoke a deep empathy. Watching the news, we realize the victims’ stories could so easily be our stories. We can imagine, with an unhealthy vividness, the phone calls that came in the night. Or didn’t get answered.
A Story of Innocence Lost
Just the other week, a soccer buddy told me her 9/11 story. (We all have them you know. See post Remember When — Exactly, Precisely When). This story touched me more than most. In 2001, she was a recent widow. She and her three children had already lost any feelings of invincibility. Cancer took the person they most loved and doctors were powerless to stop it. My buddy, then newly widowed mother, took her three children to Disney World to give them a break from grief and to make new memories.
As she told me the setting for her little family’s story of innocence lost, the music of her life cued in my head. A bizarre call and response between a requiem and It’s a Small World, eventually drowned out by other happy Disney music.
Coming out of a ride—she didn’t specify which, but my imagination has it pegged as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride—she and other park attendees were told to exit the park. They were stymied by the sudden announcement that the park was closing. As park workers herded them into waiting shuttle buses, the worst thing she could imagine for inexplicable closing was a bomb threat.
She and other parents started asking the bus drivers which other Orlando attractions were open. (The music in my head slows. Disney tunes now play at slow speed, overlapped with a dun dum, dun dum à la Jaws.)
How terrible it must have been for park employees. Watching happy families go back to their rooms, knowing what the TV screens would show them. In my buddy’s case, she did get a hint. “Nothing is open. There’s been a terrorist attack in New York.”
By the time she got to her hotel room, she didn’t get the slow experience of hearing of the planes hitting the towers one by one. She didn’t see footage of people escaping and first responders rushing in. The towers were gone. The world was different. It was a place without bubbles: not even Disney World was exempt.
What’s your story of innocence lost? Why was the story so poignant? How is it like other stories of coming of age? How does it differ? Go ahead—Write it down!
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?
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.
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?