Roadblocks – Writing Your Family Story

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Roadblocks

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There are so many possible roadblocks that have the potential to bring a screeching halt to the writing world we envision. Some of them keep us mired in the land of “Someday I want to…’ and we never even leave that land to begin the project that dwells in our heart. Here are a few things that threaten to keep us stalled and not writing the family stories that we long to.

Lack of time: Lack of time is possibly one of the most common excuses I hear from many writers. Yes, it exists. Time is limited. And when it’s taken up by a job, a family, a house that needs cleaned and maintained, it doesn’t always leave a lot of writing time. Yet, I’ve discovered that on the days when I have a large chunk of time that I think I can make some major progress on a project, I end up frittering the afternoon away and I actually get less done than when I have less time available to write.

Can you get up 30 minutes or an hour earlier and use this time for writing? Can you enlist the aid of the family and ask for an hour of uninterrupted time in the evening so you can work on your project? Are there pieces you can take with you to work – notes or an outline you can make on a break, editing you can do while you eat your lunch? Is it possible to set aside one day, or one afternoon a month that you can devote to your family stories?

Not knowing where we’re going: I find that I make better progress when I have at least a vague idea of where I’m headed with a story or a project. If I know that in the next scene I want to work on a certain story – or the next chapter will deal with a specific topic – I find that I dive in faster and get more accomplished. You probably won’t need every specific detail outlined ahead of time, but at least having a general idea of your next few steps alleviates a lot of the stalling.

Not having all the details we need: Sometimes what bogs down our progress is not having all the details we need. We either don’t have the pieces, so we avoid starting. Or, we’re missing pieces and stop writing to go look details up. I find that I accomplish more if I keep writing and use either ‘XXX’ or ‘_____’ as placeholders where I need to insert a specific detail – be it a date, name, number or other item that I need to look up or research. Then when I’m done with the scene or essay, then I stop and research the items I need to fill in later.

We won’t think anyone will want to read what we write: A lack of self-confidence can pervade our souls and keep us from writing if we don’t think anyone will want to read what we write. Keep writing anyway. Tell that little devil that’s whispering in your ear to go away. Don’t worry about whether anyone else will want to read your words or not. Write for you. Write for the desire that fills your heart.

Procrastination: Ugh! I’m certainly not one to lecture about this. I’m not just your run of the mill procrastinator. I’m a Master Procrastinator. I can have a list on my desk of what I want to accomplish that afternoon. And I check Facebook. I check email. I make sure all the cat bowls are filled with crunchies. I double-check the pot of sunflowers out front and make sure they don’t need water. I run out to the mail box – for the third time – to see if the mails run yet. I…yes, I can compete in the procrastination marathon with the best of them. But then at the end of the day I still don’t have a thing crossed off my list.

For myself, when I find myself starting to fall into this routine, I do best by forcing myself to choose one item on the list at a time. Okay – finish this ‘R’ blog…then I can go check the mail. Finish the draft of the Chicken Soup essay…then I’ll fill up the cat’s bowls. Add this one scene to the family story…then I’ll go take the chicken out of the freezer.

I know there are other tricks that help combat the procrastination bug, but this is what works best for me.

Fear: Fears are very real and can derail our writing faster than anything. We don’t think we’re good enough. We don’t think our stories are exciting. We don’t think anyone will like our work. We think we’re horrible writers. We think…

There’s a bazillion things we’re afraid of. (Yes, bazillion is an actual number, and well documented I’m sure.) But we can’t let that stop us. Just keep writing. Acknowledge the fears. They’re not imagined. They are real and they are powerful. But try to banish them and jump into the writing water anyway, despite the fears.

Perfectionism: This is another very real problem that can stop our writing before we even get started. And it gets worse when we read something that’s written very well. (At least it does for me.) I’ll read a piece that is simply wonderful. It’s beautiful. It’s lyrical. The words move the reader and read like a delightful sonnet. And I think…Oh, I can’t write like that! And somehow we expect that every word is going to flow straight from our hearts and minds, to our finger on the keyboard, and spill out onto the screen in front of us in absolute perfection. And if it doesn’t happen like that…then we’re just no good.

Rubbish! Even the best of the writers write, edit, cross out, revise again, and polish. I daresay that even Stephen King edits and changes from what he initially writes. Now, something they write on a second or third draft may be a thousand times better than what I have on draft 100. We’re all learning and growing with our writing. I look back at something I wrote five years ago – something that I thought then was nicely done. I’ll read it years later and think…Ugh! I wrote that trash?

Don’t let these roadblocks stop you or slow you down. In the words of a great many writing gurus…JUST WRITE!

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Questions

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Questions

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I was going to go in a different direction with this post, but before I could write it – another avenue dealing with questions came to mind. This one may be more musing than sharing information, but here we go anyway.

Today, on a break at work, I started pulling my thoughts together for an essay I want to write about family stories from World War II. I was still in the preliminary phase. I’d started a handwritten introductory paragraph. I’d also pulled my notes from when I’d talked to my dad’s cousin four years ago. I had a general idea of a few stories she mentioned from war time, but I needed to go back and re-read my notes to make sure I was remembering correctly. And also, to see if I’d forgotten a tidbit or two!

As I was jotting topic ideas in the margin, trying to organize my ideas so they’d flow naturally, a few questions came to mind.

What years was World War II fought? I know early ‘40’s, but never seem to remember the exact years.

What year was Pearl Harbor bombed? December 7th is ingrained in my mind, but not the year.

As I re-read my notes, I saw a mention about how Dorothy read ten books at the library’s summer reading program and won tickets to go see Bambi. The second movie shown was Union Pacific. She hadn’t mentioned any year, or how old she was, and I wasn’t sure how it felt in the wartime memories she was sharing. One thing I’ve noticed as I try to collect family stories is that they don’t follow a timeline very well. Memories and thoughts seem to jump around. When was Bambi released? When was Union Pacific released?

There questions needed answered before I started getting into the meat of the essay, but I was sitting in my car on a break, miles from my computer or a local library. So out came the phone, I opened a browser and started typing away.

The war was fought from 1939-1945. Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941. Bambi was released August 13, 1942. Union Pacific was released 4/27/1939.

Wow! In less than three minutes I had the answers I needed and could start crafting the skeleton of the essay. Ten years ago I would have had to be at home, connected to a computer. Twenty or twenty-five years ago I would have had to have a set of encyclopedias, or make a trip to the library. And now, with a few swipes and taps, I can pull up unlimited information to answer just about any question I have.

When I’m at a family gathering or a social event and see all the faces buried in their phones, I gripe quite a bit about technology and what it has done to our world. But you know, I may have to take some of those grumbles back, because this handy access sure is useful too!

Point of View – Writing Your Family Stories

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On Vintage Daze we’re participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge and celebrating days long past by sharing about writing your family story.

Point of View

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Point of view seems easy in concept. It’s in the execution that the writer finds out it’s not as simple as it sounds. Ask my critique group, they’ll concur – point of view is still something I struggle with. I am far from an expert on this subject. But, it’s something you’ll need to be aware of as you gather information and get ready to write your family’s stories.

Each scene has a narrator – a character that ‘holds the camera’ as many books like to describe it. There are four choices for point of view. Now, the point of view (you might commonly find it written as POV) may change throughout the book, but it can’t change within the scene.

First Person – One person holds the camera and what’s seen in the book is what that one character sees. Think ‘I.’ I gasped as she strode across the room and threw the purse off the balcony. (I saw) It felt like the temperature dropped twenty degrees when he entered the room. (I felt.) Now with that in mind, there’s certain things the camera will not be able to catch. You’ll know what’s going on in the characters mind, but you won’t have access to what’s going on in the mind of others. Also, while you’ll be able to see reactions on others faces, you won’t be able to ‘see’ your reactions. You can feel them, but won’t be able to see them.

Third Person Limited – A single character narrates the story, but it’s told in third person. (Not through the lens of ‘I’.) There’s more flexibility with this point of view over first person, yet it still only gives you the viewpoint of one character. It’s also easier to slip out of your main characters head and into another, frequently called ‘head-hopping.’ I know, because this is one of my weaknesses that I’m working to try and improve.

Multiple Third-Person – Different characters can narrate different scenes, which enables you as a writer to impart more information through the characters. But remember, each scene still only gets one narrator. The knack to being able to use this point of view successfully is to be able to write from multiple views without having a story that’s disjointed.

Omniscient – The narrator who sees all and knows all. The narrator is inside each characters head and can go anywhere and see anything. As Hallie Ephron writes in The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel, “Omniscience is particularly useful for showing a vast landscape or giving the perspective of a scene viewed from the future. It’s best used sparingly, and for effect.

You won’t need to know this until you start writing, and even then since viewpoints can shift within a book, it’s not a vital decision you need to make. But I think it helps to be aware of point of view so as you start forming story or scene ideas in your mind, you can get a feel for who is going to be telling the story. Is it from your point of view and will reflect what you saw taking place in the family? Will it be from your grandmother’s point of view? Your uncles? Or a mix? This is just a little fine-tuning detail. Be aware of it, but please, don’t let this stop you from telling the stories that are meant to be etched for future generations.

Occupations – Writing Your Family History

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Occupations

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Your ancestor’s occupation may seem insignificant, a mere minor detail that you use to fill in one line on your list of facts. Yet, this tiny scrap of information plays a vital role in shaping the character that you write about in your family story. After all, it was an important enough detail that occupations are listed on ship manifests and on census sheets.

You may not know what activities filled your ancestor’s daily life, yet their occupation will give you many clues. The daily life of a great-grandfather that owned the mercantile store in town would have been vastly different from the great-grandfather that worked in a coal mine.

When I was researching Athelstan, Iowa and the 1934 quilt squares, for Memories on Muslin, I found an old reprinted newspaper article that mentioned the stores in the early town.

At one time Athelstan was a bustling little berg. Never as large as Bedford, the county seat about eighteen miles away, it still had its share of commerce. Besides the ‘gallon’ store on the Missouri side, the reprinted article mentions these businesses:

Charles Merrill, drugstore

Mr. Winston, drugstore

Ace Nighswonger, general store

Hal Brown, general store

Miles Martin (first postmaster), general store

W.J.W. & Pearl Townsend, store

Sid Merriman, store

Miles Martin (postmaster & general store owner), hotel

Ed and Avon Johnson, butchers and sausage makers

Flint and Coats, coopers

Dr. Childres, first physician

Schoenmann and Sons, lumber yard

I’d never heard of a cooper and had to look it up. According to Wikipedia, “Traditionally, a cooper is someone who makes wooden staved vessels of a conical form, of greater length than breadth, bound together with hoops and possessing flat ends or heads. Examples of a cooper’s work include but are not limited to casks, barrels, buckets, tubs, butter churns, hogsheads, firkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts, pins and breakers.”

Besides the job of cooper, which no longer exists today, many other occupations don’t exist anymore. Think switchboard operator, milk man, service station attendant, or ice man. Just for fun, here are a few web sites that mention other occupations that have disappeared, such as a knocker-upper, rat catcher, bowling alley pinsitter, or a lector, among others.

https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-of-the-weird-jobs-that-no-longer-exist

http://www.businessinsider.com/11-jobs-from-1850-that-are-totally-extinct-2013-9

http://www.best10resumewriters.com/35-jobs-no-longer-exist-part-2/

https://journal.media/old-jobs-that-no-longer-exist

Notes

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On Vintage Daze we’re participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge and celebrating days long past by sharing about writing your family story.

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Notes

Makes notes, make notes, make notes!

We think our memories are infallible. They aren’t.

We think we’ll remember dates and details. We don’t.

We think that online resources will always be available. They aren’t.

I found out the hard way that these difficulties are part of the researching life. When I first began seeking information on the families from Athelstan, Iowa that made quilt squares I 1934, I copiously took pages and pages of notes. By the time I started accumulating so much data that it all began to blur together, I started separating the information into different family lines. However…what I didn’t do was make notes of where I found the materials. I’d take a break and work on other projects, then pick this one back up after a few months or so. Several years later, I’d pick up my notebook and look back to reference something and for the life of me couldn’t understand what my short, cryptic note meant. And when I’d try to go back to the original information, I couldn’t find where I’d found it in the first place. I did not take near enough notes as to the specific pages where I’d found information. If possible, print out the pages. Yes, you’ll go through a lot of ink and a lot of paper, but you’ll have the information handy, along with page links printed at the top or bottom of the pages.

In another example, I planned on writing a short children’s stories about Anna Edson Taylor, a woman who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel. In this case I did print out the pages for documentation. I never wrote the story and several years later looked at it again to decide if I wanted to work on this story idea. I had the links for where I’d gotten the information, but when I tried to go to several of the pages to try to dig a little deeper in my research, the pages didn’t exist anymore. I sure was glad that I’d printed the pages out!

My Family Heirloom Journal

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Are your shelves filled with treasures that have been passed down through the generations? As I sit at my desk I look up at the bookcase. There’s a small wooden clock that Grandpa Jones made. I see it and recall younger years when I, my brother and sister, and cousins would be visiting Grandpa and Grandma at their home on Leadora Street in Glendora. They had a small detached garage, with a dirt floor, that was Grandpa’s workshop. He loved crafting with wood. Ahhhh…the scent of freshly cut pine still sends me back to these childhood days when we’d hang around Grandpa, smelling the air fragrant with damp dirt and piles of wood shavings all over the ground.

A stack of books, with small white letters painted on the spine do the same thing. These books send me back in years too. I remember the large bookcase my dad built when we lived in Glendora. He had all his books arranged in a certain order. And I remember the small cubby on the bottom that was saved for our children’s books. There was a set of encyclopedias that provided hours of reading delights. I loved learning about new places, people, and made so many fascinating discoveries between the covers of these treasured volumes. But its Dad’s little white letters that remain vivid in my mind. It kept all the books in order, in his own unique filing system. Those memories will remain forever.

When I look at the kitchen towel with its crocheted border, I think of Mom and the countless kitchen towels and hot pads that she’s crocheted through the years. And she’s still at it. I talked to her a few days ago and she’s starting on another crocheted potholder project – a bacon and eggs ones. Then I think of the hundreds of aprons that she’s sewn through the years.

But these are my memories. Once I’m gone, the memories go with me. Even though the clock, the books, and the dish towels will remain behind – their history will be lost. I think of a pressed glass creamer that Grandma Cline passed down to me. She placed a small handwritten note in the creamer telling me where it came from. Alas, over the past thirty years with many moves, that little note was lost.

The white enamelware plates from Grandpa Stayer, the milk glass candy dish from Grandma Jones, the puppy vase from friend and neighbor Genevieve Martin…I don’t want to lose all the memories associated with these valued pieces. My boys or the nieces and nephews that end up with these things won’t know the stories behind them. So, My Family Heirloom Journal was created.

You can get My Family Heirloom Journal on Amazon.

It’s also available through my author page, at a package deal of THREE journals for $20. (You can mix and match, whatever volumes you’d like.)

 

Seven Day Sale!

 

Memory

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Memory

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Whether we’re writing memoir, historic documentation of a family history, or creating a fictional tale based on true beginnings, we rely heavily on memory – which has been proven to be imperfect.

Our own memories, even though we think we have perfect recall, may err drastically from what actually happened. The family members that we interview may be spot on in the memories they think of to tell you. Or, those moments may have been distorted by the passage of time and the many experiences that have occurred since.

A lot may vary just because of our own individual perceptions of an event. I was talking to a co-worker about this subject one day. There were three of us in the room discussing some now-forgotten work drama and how another employee’s version of what happened differed so drastically from theirs.

I commented that even if someone came in immediately after our conversation and recorded details about what happened – they’d get three different stories. There may be much in common, but we all pay attention to different details. One will recall the conversation with more accuracy. Another may not remember much at all because their mind was far away, dwelling on one of their own problems and they weren’t paying attention. Another may remember the clothing that was worn, or the perfume that filled the room, while someone else the clothing or its color may not have even registered.

Next, add ten, twenty, or sixty years to the timeline. How accurate is that memory going to be?

In Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach tells a story that his sister likes to frequently re-tell. It involves a younger brother, sucking on a blue toy bolt until it stuck to his life. The sister finally wrestled it off and when it came loose the younger brother’s lip swelled to tremendous proportions and everyone freaked.

Except…the author claims that his sister wasn’t there. He was. The bolt was yellow, not blue. And he and his mother both laughed about it.

He writes, “Memory is faulty. That’s one of the tenets of memory. And the reader comes to memoir understanding that memory is faulty, that the writer is going to challenge the limits of memory, which is quite different from lying.”

He also writes, “Even facts distort: What’ remembered, recorded, is never the event itself, no matter how precise the measurement…”

Just be aware that our individual perceptions and the passage of time may alter what we try to convey as historical fact.

Sometimes a bit of a disclaimer worked into the narrative may help smooth over some of the possible differences in account.

  • As far as I recollect…
  • The conversation went something like…
  • My ex – let’s call him Doofus James…
  • The story of how he got his first job bootlegging may be lost, but one can assume…
  • Though the details have been lost through the years, it most likely…

All in all, since we’re most likely not out looking for journalistic awards for this work, the important thing to know is that recording our family’s legacy is what’s important. As Carol Lachappelle, in Finding Your Voice Telling Your Stories, shares: The poet Anne Sexton wrote, “It doesn’t matter who my father was, it matters who I remember he was.”