I really don't know how I write, so talking or writing about the process is difficult. Writing's magical. Writing's messy. I would love to be a writer who makes and follows chapter outlines --- but I am not. This process I repeat time and again: As I am nearing the completion of the research, I am driven to bake cookies, dig in the garden, take my black shepherd for a walk, or get in my car and just drive. The words and images flow through my mind. It seems as though my subject, a Baby Irene or Orena, begin to flow through my blood, coursing through my body. For a time, I become Orena, her mother, her grandmother. I hear the voices of her father, uncles, and brothers. I see the cabins, cemeteries, and the mountains in far away Tennessee. I see the Atlantic and Pacific oceans from atop the Summit of the Cierro Gigante. The story consumes me, my nights, my dreams, my thoughts --- sometimes for hours, or days, or weeks
Then by some mystical internal working, I see the story. Usually, I sit down and pound out the story at one fell swoop. Sometimes my research and my immersion into the life of the subject is so thorough, that my rough draft requires only cosmetic changes. Those are the best of times. Unfortunately, re-write is usually significant and the messiest part of writing.
In addition to the nuts and bolts of writing, I have three litmus tests that my stories, especially those of family history, have to meet: Respect, Honor and Truth. These have little to do with my research or the story, but more about the storyteller. I have to respect the story and the subject by not changing or tweaking it in order to make the story more exciting, more risqué, more politically correct. When I use dialogue, I have not heard my 3rd great-grandmother speak specific words, but I have heard three generations of women speak similar words, similar intonations. I do know what her home looked like, the recipes she handed down, and how many children were playing around her feet. I know about her political beliefs, her family of origin. I know they came from the traditions of the Chartist, Separationist, and Temperance movements. I know her pride in her husband and their accomplishments in a new land. I know the historically close knit family ties. I test those words that I put coming from her mouth against everything that I know about her and then I ask the three questions:
Am I respectful of the story and it's place and time? The storyteller cannot assume the mores and customs of the present time, or any other time --- only the story's time and place.
Have I honored the subject by being honest, and conscientious about portraying their lives?
Have I been true to the spirit of my subject and their story?
In this process if I can say that my words are true to the spirit of my subject, I give honor, respect, and truth to the story – whether the story is a family history or fiction.
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Confessions, Pt. II