Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Confessions of a Storytelling Family Historian; Part I, The beginning

Growing up in a world of make-believe, and being a verbally precocious child, it is no wonder that I became a storyteller. On the other hand, it may be a bit surprising because none of my family shares my penchant for storytelling -- not my siblings, nor my mother, and I don't remember my father being a storyteller. However, my father did love his stories that came out of the radio and off of the movie screen. When I was a child, I remember sitting with my dad in the car outside the movie theater listening to the radio. We wouldn't go into the theater until the Lone Ranger and Tonto saved the day. Missing a few minutes at the beginning of the movie was OK with us as we could catch what we missed at the beginning of the 2nd show, but in those days there was no replay on the radio.

In elementary school, I always had big ideas for plays, which were usually too intricate for us kids. I would also put on Christmas pageants at home, with sister and cousins taking the major parts, my Irish Setter pressed into the part of the donkey, and a doll for the Baby Jesus. I felt artistically challenged when my brother was a baby, and my mother would not allow him to be Babe in the manger (or red wagon, in a pinch). I had to settle for the doll baby. In school speech contests, I loved dramatic stories and poems the best. The “hammy-ier,” the better, so said my mother and aunt. I emoted over “Madame X,” Poe's “For Annie,” “Annabelle Lee,” and “The Raven”, as well as Noyes' “The Highwayman.”

After I had my first child at 18, my storytelling took another turn. As mothers everywhere, I read and told stories to my children and now to my younger brothers. They liked the poems and stories I read, but most of all they liked my stories that were like serial versions of old fashioned radio shows or the Saturday movie matinées. Cliff hangers were my forte. The next night or so, my little audience clamored to hear the ending, but my stories never ended, just morphed from one story line to another.

During my late 20s, into my 30s, and even 40s, this favorite pastime of mine slacked off, partially because these were self-involved years, but also the adults around me viewed this proclivity as “too emotional”, “not seemly for an adult woman,” “there is real work to be done,” and other story-killing judgments. However, by my mid 40s, I came into my old mode again. I now had a captive audience; my own company employed up to 40 people --- all young, bright, energetic and, most importantly, they like my stories. I would regale them during staff meetings, on the way to conferences, and at after work sessions.

I also found that I had somehow acquired a significant amount of family history and began a serious delving into family records. In a very short time the two facets, family history and storytelling, began to merge. Discouragement many times hampered my family stories as I couldn't always find out everything about my ancestors. I was stonewalled by stilted lists and records as I sifted through census, birth, marriage and death reports. Wills and Probate records were better, but land titles and tax records did not a flesh and blood story make.

Next, I joined a writing group that supposedly focused on family history writing. I found my first niche; not family historians per se, but a group of writers that were to become my “writerly” friends. My writing improved, my stories got better, but my family history stories tended to be labored and somehow unfinished.
I fussed,
and vented frustration.

I could just make up stories, write “creative” family history. I shuddered as I remembered the cutting words at a genealogy workshop where the leader slammed a workshopee's family history, “That's not a family history! You can't say anything in a family history that is not verifiable.”

What? No descriptive rhapsodies. No dialogue, unless of course, my 3rd great grandmother carried around a small tape recorder and mystically passed that recording to me through the shifting veil of the ages. The old folks of my past were talking to me. I shuffled stacks of old pictures of my departed ones, only to have their faces come to me in the night like a shimmer, in quaking leaves, in shifting clouds, white and grey. Sometimes faces would roll through my mind like an endless TV show. Faces calling to me. Stories begging to be told. What was I to do?
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  1. I am SOOOO tuned in! Can't wait!

  2. Waiting with bated breath.... Soon, right?

  3. I know the answer, I know!

    wow, there is a class for learning to write historical accounts. sounds like they did not want it to be entertaining. But I could use a little help in story relating. It's not on line huh?

    I always want to know the story behind something actions or an event.
    But you obviously are good at what you do.
    I can't say I have been blessed with verbal gift at it. Or written for that matter.
    I am blessed with the opportunity to blog and that has been my answer.

    Have you ever read the Schwan or Swan books?
    A novel about both your family and some made up stuff together with history of german life. I hope to read them someday. I think it is a great combination for talented people.

    I look foreward to part two.

  4. Hi Joan,

    I couldn't find a way to email you, but I wanted to contact you about a genealogy awards project we're running at myheritage.com. If you can drop me an email at robert@myheritage.com, I'd really appreciate it. (feel free to delete this comment once you get it!)