A family history writer is something very different from a family history researcher even if they are embodied in the same person. A researcher ransacks the vital records to discover the facts. A writer goes beyond those facts to find their meaning. “History at best has to be literature or it will go to dust,” said historian David McCullogh during his 2003 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. How does that transformation of fact to literature occur?
Have you watched a young person’s fingers fly across the keyboard of their computer or contort in seemingly impossible gyrations as they text on their smart phone? The dexterity of the so called “digital natives” is amazing to those of us who were educated in the pre-electronic age. We spent hours in elementary school classrooms trying to master Spenserian Script, the Palmer Method, Getty-Dubay, the D’Nealian Method or some other form of cursive writing. On the other side of the coin, for the current generation the gently flowing script we all worked so hard to cultivate has become nearly as remote as hieroglyphics or cuneiform.
What was it like to live in Great Grand Dad’s day? That’s a question any family historian trying to bring his ancestors to life in the pages of a book ought to ask. Getting beyond the rather cold facts of a relative’s genealogical record requires drawing upon family stories when they are available. But it also means trying to recreate the time and place in which that person lived, their historical context. That’s the realm of the social historian. The City University of New York has placed the work of its American Social History Project a mouse click away.
A week from today is National Day of Listening, a new national holiday started by StoryCorps in 2008. On the day after Thanksgiving, StoryCorps asks all Americans to take an hour to record an interview with a loved one…” It’s an extension of the mission of StoryCorps, an independent non-profit that has recorded over 35,000 interviews conducted by over 70,000 participants since the organization was founded in 2003.
I am old enough to remember hard-bound encyclopedias, those infallible sources for grade-school reports. And I am old enough to remember the pre-Google era, when I would wonder, and wonder, and yet my questions remained unanswered. Do you remember the days when you had to wait to go to the library?
Now, for a quick answer, above all, there is Wikipedia. Of all the innumerable sources of internet information, Wikipedia is my go-to source for quick answers to my constant questions. On my computer’s browser, it holds the place of honor, that first, left button on my bookmarks toolbar.
Here’s a small example of Wikipedia’s usefulness: Today, someone cryptically wrote“TIA” in an email to me. I was at a loss. I Googled it, and discovered that TIA is the acronym for a transient ischemic attack, and for the Telecommunications Industry Association, too. No luck. Wikipedia was more helpful: It listed every instance of TIA, categorized from medicine, transportation, people’s names, and literature and the arts, and that’s where I found my match. In my case, the meaning was "TIA" (thanks in advance), common usage in internet slang. How could I not know that? Well, now I do. Thanks, Wikipedia.
Today there was a banner at the top of the Wikipedia page, with a message from the founder, Jimmy Wales. I idly clicked on it and read the message. I'd never thought of it before, that Wikipedia is "a humanitarian project to bring a free encyclopedia to every single person on the planet." I was touched by Wale’s earnest idealism. I donated a few dollars.
What does it mean to have facts at your fingertips? What is it worth? A lot, to me. I think it has changed the way I navigate the world. Now, I expect to know – and if I don’t, well then I’ll find out. Thanks, Wikipedia.
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"There are attics and trunks of letters all over South Carolina, parts and pieces of our collective story," she said. "We're just the custodians of a few threads. It's our challenge to pass it on," said Marty Daniels. The efforts of Daniels and 11 of her relatives to preserve a piece of their family’s history and “pass it on,” recently reported by the Associated Press, produced quite a detective story. The story concluded when the family announced that it had obtained nearly 200 photographs that Daniels’ great-great grand aunt, Civil War diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut had collected to illustrate her journals of that war years.
It's National Novel Writing Month. According to the National Association of Memoir Writers it's also National Memoir Writing Month. Can you write a book in a month? I once saw the prolific pulp mystery writer Mickey Spillane on the Tonight Show. Johnny Carson asked him how long it took him to write a book. “Depends on how bad I need the money,” said Spillane. “What's the fastest you ever wrote one,” asked Johnny. “I wrote one over a three-day weekend once,” he replied. So it can be done, if you're skilled and experienced, not to mention highly motivated. However, if you've never written a book, expecting to finish a manuscript in a month might be a tad unrealistic.
What will you be giving your kids this holiday season? Clothes, books, the latest electronic gizmo? Let me suggest something truly unique that only you can provide: their family history. A generation or two ago, kids would have picked up their history by listening to the extended family telling stories around the dinner table. But our families have grown more scattered, their lives are more hectic, so that happens less and less often. Kids don’t hear about how Great Grandma and Grandpa left Oklahoma to move to California, or what Uncle Joe did during the Second World War.
You’ve probably seen the sign that adorns office cubicles, “"You don’t have to be schizophrenic to work here, but it helps."” That touch of humor might well describe the dual roles of the author of a memoir.
Why does custom book design matter when you self publish a book? That’s a tough question to answer if you’ve never published a book before. So let’s look at an analogy. You want to remodel your kitchen. You can go to the local Home Depot and choose one of half a dozen cabinet designs they have on display. They may not have exactly the cabinets you would like to have, but they can offer you a low price on the cabinets they do have. Or you can bring in a contractor who will listen to what you want and design cabinets to fit your exact specifications. You pay more, but you get exactly what you want. Self publishing authors face a similar choice.
What's so special about memoirs? And what's the difference from a personal essay? Generally, a personal essay explores an idea, and draws upon personal experiences and reflections to draw a conclusion about that idea. It is personal, because it is one person’s opinion, their unique perspective. Personal essays tend to be focused and short.
A memoir can convey so much more than an essay, both in content and style. Like the personal essay, a memoir will delve into an individual's experience in a search for meaning and insight. A book length memoir will, inevitably, include a greater number of personal tales, which can then be linked together to examine cause and effect throughout one's lifetime.
A memoir can also be shaped into a highly artful literary form. As an editor, I often receive a rough draft of a memoir in chronological order. That’s because we tend to think of our life story as beginning at birth and ending with…well, you know. However, if you are asked, “What about the meaning of your life?” all sorts of different life stories will emerge. You’ll explore the turning points that shaped your identity and values. You’ll remember the people who influenced you, for better or worse, and how. These stories, which can be tied together by themes, rather than ordered by date, make for especially fascinating reading.
In the commercial marketplace, we often see published memoirs of famous politicians or celebrities, or memoirs by people who have had such an extraordinary experience that they make national news and sign a book deal. Yet each of us, perhaps in a less public or spectacular fashion, has stories to tell. Life itself teaches us powerful lessons, and if we’ve stopped to learn and reflect, we can share our experiences and teach those lessons to others.
At StoriesToTellBooks.com, we get lots of writers who don’t aspire to a national book deal, but want to self publish their memoirs for family and friends. Now that self publishing is so inexpensive, anyone can write a book for their loved ones, and some may even produce a book that is of wider interest.
What’s the difference between what you write privately, for family and friends, rather than commercially? Private self publishing means you can include the things your family will care to know, and to keep forever. We design books that include precious family photos, letters, recipes, documents. These images illustrate and amplify the memoir’s meaning. An illustrated memoir is wonderfully unique, reflecting the author’s life and interests. A commercial author, on the other hand, must consider what will be universally appealing to the general public, and shape their content to convey more universal and broadly appealing messages. They rarely contain more than a few illustrations, as these are too personal for the general reader.
One of the questions authors often ask is “How do I know if I am done yet?” That’s a good question, as there is a lot of flexibility in memoir; there is no one “right way” or a template to fill in. Like many editors, we offer “manuscript evaluation” to read the draft and advise whether to keep writing, or not. Generally, if the scope of your book is too broad, you’ll write a lot of too short, too shallow stories. With memoir, it’s better to cover less ground, in more depth. After all, if you have many, many stories with a lot of depth, you may have more than enough material to publish two books!
Memoirs are powerful because they touch the heart. They originate from true life stories, and the reader will inevitably put themselves in your shoes and imagine, what if it had been me? Your reader will not only think, but they will feel, as if they had been there themselves. When you tell your stories, you are transporting the reader to a different time and place, and they will know and feel what it was to have lived your life. What greater art?
One of the wonderful things changes in printing technology has done for family historians and memoirists is to allow their books to be illustrated throughout. But, that benefit has also presented some sometimes difficult choices to authors. Which of the photos in the family album get into their book? Photos can enhance a book's text in different ways.
Creating a book is often viewed as if an author were some sort of alchemist transforming the base metals of an idea into the precious golden prose of a book. Let’s take a step back and look at creating a book in a less pretentious way. Creating a book might also be viewed as an exercise in project management.
“How will you celebrate family history month?” asks Randy Seaver on his Genea-Musings blog. For more and more people the answer appears to be by writing my life story. The desire to create a book is a wonderful impulse, but many of the seniors who respond to it do so with very little knowledge or experience concerning what it takes to get a book into print.
Have you run into TED? I discovered the website today and think its worth sharing. The site says, “TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader.” TED offers some fascinating stuff from some of the best minds in the world.