In storytelling as in life, we find ourselves wearing a variety of hats. The professional. The parent. The expert. The questioner. Some situations call for only one hat. Other times, we wear a combination. Which storytelling hat we don as we tell our own and family stories impacts how we’ll narrate the episodes of the past.
You don’t have to choose just one, but you should choose. The act of sticking one or more on our heads should be intentional. Thinking about your role as the storyteller can help you handle some of those thorny situations that crop up.
We’ll start with the storyteller’s hat. When we wear it we want to:
- Create Understanding
- Preserve chapters of history
- Form Connections
Most of the time, our inner storyteller influence is a good thing. The desire to form connections makes almost all of us better writers and storytellers, as does the drive to make our stories compelling.
As Diana Raab states in her 5 Tips on the Fine Art of Storytelling article, “When a story is told well, the listener is transported on a journey to a new place.” It opens readers eyes not only to what happened in one particular story, but what could have happened in that time and place. They can imagine living there.
While we discussed this in a recent class I taught, a participant raised his hand, perplexed. “What’s so wrong with embellishment? I’m the family storyteller. What does it matter if I change some details?” While my inner genealogist counted to ten, I invited his classmates to respond.
One questioned what it was that his audience wanted. “You said you’re here because your grandson urged you to write stories down. There are libraries full of good fictional stories. I think perhaps he wants to hear your true story.” Other classmates thought that as long as he didn’t try to sell the embellishments as truth, it was completely up to him.
Great food for thought. How attached are you to your storyteller’s hat?
Wearing the Biographer/Autobiographer/Historian/Genealogist’s Hat
Though they are no less invested in creating understanding and preserving history, these hats are more constraining. That doesn’t mean that historians et al aren’t great writers and storytellers. The Joe Friday, “Just the facts, Ma’am” reputation is unfair (not to mention misattributed). However, as they narrate the past, they make sure to:
- Get the details right
- Research and source
- Provide historical context
And while they’re at it, the family historian hopes to discover ancestor’s and document generations past.
Choosing the genealogist’s or historian’s hat, i.e., deciding to be ethically bound to provide an unbiased illumination of history, brings clarity to those “what not to tell” decisions. Judy Russell, aka The Legal Genealogist, addresses this at length in her “Ethical Genealogist” lecture. (If you’re ever able to attend one, I highly recommend it.) An example she gives is that ethical genealogists can’t paint their slave-owning ancestors as well-loved by their slaves unless they’ve found evidence to back up that claim.
She also presents tips on deciding if leaving out part of the story is revising history. That’s a great measuring stick for all storytellers, regardless of their obsession—or lack-thereof—with finding their ancestors.
The Memorist’s Hat
Whether you’re penning a literary memoir or telling vignettes of your own life, the memoirist’s hat has a different feel to it. Its hatstrings are entangled with the delicate threads of fallible memory. Rather than research facts, the memoirist endeavors to
- Tell their own “truth’
- Focus on their personal memories
- Narrate emotional events
- Explain smaller parts of a life story
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen’s poignant article You or Your Memory: On writing memoir and family articulates the decisions memoirists face as they depict episodes that others might well remember differently.
I first thought that memoir was an exercise in linear cataloguing, but realise now that it’s about personal perspective and capturing significant moments and feelings. Memoirists and those close to them must recognise the fallibility and subjectivity of memory, and the fluid nature of narrative. Life influences art as much as art influences life.
The Advocate’s Storytelling Hat
The advocate’s hat goes well with other head-toppings. For instance, memorists describing traumatic episodes of their pasts often self-advocate. When thoughtful and ethical, it’s a noble hat. However, if you forget you’re wearing it under a historian’s hat, it can allow bias to creep into what you meant to be an impartial narrative, because advocates:
- Seek to persuade
- Have a declared bias (or should)
- Represent the interests of one person above others
Some genealogists feel uncomfortable playing the advocate. They feel their role should always be to shine the light of historical and social context on the past, letting readers form their own conclusions. They want to light the entire scene, not to highlight only a narrow path leading to the back-door.
Finding myself incapable at times to walk the tightrope of even-handedness, I sometimes choose to wear the advocate’s hat unashamedly. For instance, even were I capable of it, I don’t feel it’s my role to explain any mitigating circumstances that might explain my great-grandfather abandoning his daughter. I wear the hat of a proud granddaughter, incensed at the neglect he subjected her to.
What storytelling hat do you wear as you narrate chapters of the past? Why does it work for you? What conflicts does it lead you into?
Image credit – background image of stacked hats: Morguefile standard license, user “clarita”
 As quoted from Gore Vidal in Palimpsest in “Two Possible Definitions for Memoir,” ReadWriteThink.org, accessed July 17, 2018, http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/lesson_images/lesson998/Definition.pdf.