Friday, April 30, 2010

93rd Carnival Of Genealogy:"How To" Confessions of a Storytelling Family Historian; Part III, On Writing

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.

* * *

Confessions, Pt.I

Confessions, Pt. II


  1. Wonderful series! Have really enjoyed reading your processes and thoughts! I chuckled some at your describing writing in your mind for hours on end, I do that, I am so relieved to know I am not "stuck between floors". Kudos on your three litmus tests, all ethical.

  2. Joan, I can't find a way to email you, but I am so curious about the "dinna" thing. What dialect does that come from? I want you to tell me all about it! (yarsan@aol.com)


  3. You are a past whisperer, truly.
    Very well done Joan...I really enjoyed this series.

  4. Terrific series, Joan--what a pleasure to read, and I always find it interesting to learn how others approach the writing process.

  5. Ditto T.K. I was reading # 2 and knew Ihad to ask how you decide on who to write of and how long one takes to get published. Because these are my areas and my people of my interest I get behind it all too. Especilaly for particular ones, such as my mail order bride or lizzie seil. Material evades me though. I just wish I had the "gift" like you do.
    Are you a writer for a magazine or newspaper in real life. And I suppose they also have a different angle. Public dramatics on issues.

  6. Thank you, Joan! Now I know what I aspire to.

  7. Thanks so much, Joan, for sharing your thoughts and feelings about writing family history. You expressed the steps so well. I love your tenets of Respect, Honor and Truth. These are the perfect reminders for writing about your ancestors. I'd like to steal those ideas, if that's okay.
    Nancy Hurley

  8. Nancy, I am glad you liked my litmus tests of Respect, Honor and Truth. The are universal concepts and belong to no one person. I am just pleased that my words resonated within you. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  9. I read your articles quickly a while ago and wanted to come back and read them again when I had more time. They are even better with a second reading. You are truly a woman after my own heart. Since my mom died in 2008, I've had this intense desire to share my research, and family stories, with someone. My mom was my last connection to the past. My son is only seven, and I'm writing my stories to share with him some day. I know I need to write now before my memories fade. Thanks for an inspiring and interesting series.

    Oh, and I work out my stories while I'm walking the dog too...