“No one’s family history is compelling and interesting, until you make it compelling and interesting,” said family historian Sharon DeBartolo Carmack.
Absolutely! But how do you do that?
One important part of the process is recognizing that there is an critical difference between genealogical research and writing a family history. The genealogist is focused on finding the facts, on documenting the sources of those facts and producing an objective record of his ancestors’ lives. The family historian, on the other hand, is trying to construct a narrative capturing not only the factual events but the context in which they occurred. The motivations and feelings of the ancestors are part of their story.
Richard Gilbert in his excellent blog Narrative illustrated the essence of the distinction between the two mindsets in a passage from poet Archibald MacLeish’s essay Poetry and Journalism.
What really distinguishes poetry from journalism, aside from the obvious distinctions of form—uses of words, patterns of words, sequences of words—is not a difference in kind but a difference in focus. Journalism is concerned with events, poetry with feelings. Journalism is concerned with the look of the world: poetry with the feel of the world. Journalism wishes to tell what has happened everywhere as though the same things had happened for every man. Poetry wishes to say what it is like to any man to be himself in the presence of a particular occurrence as though he alone had faced it.
The family historian’s challenge is to blend the two ways of seeing the world.
Some people simply publish the genealogical record they have gathered as a family history book. That’s fine as a documentary record, but it’s hardly likely to be compelling reading. Others draw upon the historical record to place those records in context, allowing readers to get a sense of the time and place where their ancestors live. But the family historian who aspires to the level of creating a “compelling and interesting” book must overcome what MacLeish describes as the “divorce between knowing and feeling.” To do that a family historian must be willing to go beyond the strictly factual. He needs to draw inferences from the record to examine what might have motivated his ancestors to do certain things and to speculate about how the ancestors felt about them. Why, for example, did ancestors three or four generations back decide to leave the farm and move to the city? You may not be able to find an answer in the family’s records, but you can use context to suggest the reasons.
It is when you tap into the feelings of your ancestors that you bring them to life and are most likely to engage your audience in their compelling and interesting story.