Nadine Gordimer, a 1991 Nobel Prize recipient for Literature once wrote, “Writing is making sense of life. You work your whole life and perhaps you’ve made sense of one small area.” I love this quote because it clarifies what every life story is about; “making sense of life.” We go about life with a bare awareness of the many ripples our lives are creating as we swim around in the lake of life. I’ve had students who would come into class claiming their lives were not very interesting, that is – until they started writing a few things down!
Writing about ourselves might prove challenging but it’s the one story we know the best. With the passing of time, we often forget the details of what, at the time, we were sure we’d remember. However, writing a story about someone you’ve never met with only a few scraps of information may seem somewhat presumptuous. There’s no doubt that every life lived has its own unique effect and has no doubt caused a few ripples. By taking on the challenge of writing about it, you might discover why a particular life was not lived in vain, but was in fact quite event-filled. Even a person’s descendants, who were caught up in one of the ripples, might provide the key to making sense of it. Family histories tend to expand exponentially and can provide many absorbing details that could greatly enhance a family history. It excites the mind to think so.
In my first article, “Creating Ancestral Histories and Life Stories”, I discussed why it is imperative to commit to writing a story about your ancestors (much less tackle your own story) on a regular schedule. We examined how to think about writing, why the dash of each life matters and why sketching out a timeline is essential to defining the historical period you wish to cover. Plus, how setting up an ideal environment for writing and then timing your sessions will prevent burnout. Also, I added a few hints about journaling, storing and preserving delicate information.
EVERYONE GOES THROUGH THE CYCLE OF LIFE
Of course, an immediate question is where to actually begin. Most biographies and autobiographies are chronological. An ancestral history is a biography. Getting organized should occur not only with an outline but should begin to take shape in your mind as well. Depending on the historical setting of your story, you can assume the subject’s life had a cycle much the same as it does today with a few differences in tools and circumstances.
There’s a life-cycle I hand out with the following: Birth (day 1), childhood, preschool (to 5), elementary school (5-13), teens (13-19), young adult (19-25), early marriage years (20-30), early career years (20-35), middle years (35-55), later years (55-65), and retirement years (65 on). You would have to adapt this to the time frame of your story but we all have a cycle to our lives. For instance, most of us in the U.S. today have had formal schooling of one degree or another. However, in the 16th, 17th and 18th century only a few were fortunate enough to receive a formal education. In other countries this would vary widely. In the early history of this country, a majority of people grew up working on farms, came from large families, raised their own food, often built their own homes, made their own furniture, and made their own clothes. Predicting tomorrow’s weather in those days was only a guess, but the seasons had a rhythm that every farmer knew. With the coming of the industrial age, immigration and the growth of cities, dramatic shifts occurred in what people did and how they lived. Capturing that kind of social change in your story would allow the reader to actually comprehend and visualize the times.
BEGIN WITH QUESTIONS
To prepare for the process of putting together a story, a good practice is to start with a long list of questions such as:
- Where and when was the subject born?
- What was the average age to which people lived?
- Do I know the parents?
- Any siblings?
- Was there a war going on?
- What other world events were going on?
- Do I know of any moves they made?
- Do I know the dates of the moves?
- Where were they on the social and financial ladder?
- What was their level of education?
- What was the economy like?
- What was the weather like?
- Which new inventions were patented or just coming onto the market?
- What was driving the economy?
- Who was the president?
- Who were the writers, thinkers and the prominent names during those times?
- Which books were popular?
- What was the religious world discussing?
- What was the scientific world doing?
- How about hospitals and available medical treatments?
- What controversies were making the news?
- Did geography, water sources or topography of the land play a role?
- Were there any fads going on?
You probably won’t use all of the information you gather to weave into your story, so use your imagination as best as you can and trust your instincts. It’s better to have too much information than too little. Take regular breaks too. It’s healthy.
Most questions can be easily researched on Google or the equivalent. I normally suggest to my students that they make up an advanced, comprehensive list of questions in a database and answer them as best possible in relation to the time period being covered. You might even ask a relative or friend to brainstorm with you on coming up with questions. By posing questions, a framework can be built to support the setting and timeline and then you can add the bricks and mortar of the story as you begin to create it. The more time you put into the history and questions in advance, the easier it will be to produce a compelling story of which to surround your subject. It may even serve your readers well if you attempt to speculate on possible motives behind why certain things happened the way they did in the life of your subject. An example might be that “the promise of land or better opportunity down the road may have been his/her reason for moving on.” Even family feuds, economic hardships or running from the law could be a reason. In any case, when thoughts occur to you as you’re writing, try to figure it out for your future audience but stay as close as possible to the facts as you know them.
Also, ask yourself the question: “If I was reading this, what would I like to know about this person’s history?” You can edit as you write, but always go back over it several times before you declare it finished. It’s always good, if you can, to let your story lie around for a few days and then go back and read it again. I can almost guarantee you’ll want to tweak it just a little more. I suggest that you ask someone to read your finished product out loud because it always sounds different. Always put the date you created on it somewhere on the first or last page. Most computer programs today do a decent job helping you spell correctly and keeping the sentence structure correct. It boggles my mind sometimes to realize the value of the many tools we have at our disposal. One source I recommend for filling in historical background information is a writer and lecturer named Dr. George Schweitzer http://www.yogs.com/OtherPubs/GeorgeSchweitzer.htm. He has authored many excellent books on various historical periods including wars, many state histories, migration trails and other valuable resources. There are dozens of excellent books that have been published about certain times and places which would be worth reading. We live in a blessed age and Ancestry.com is a treasure trove of search engines and helpful blogs, so be sure and take advantage of all of them.
YOUR STORY MAY BECOME PART OF SOMEONE’S HISTORY
Once you begin stitching together the story of your ancestors, and you’ve done your homework, you may find yourself trying to walk in their shoes. What was life really like? Also, you may find yourself drawn to personal accounts that others have written with a deeper appreciation for what they took the time to sit down and create. In future blogs, I’ll be offering hints about describing surroundings, sounds, colors and smells and the use of adjectives and adverbs that will keep your reader’s attention. Also, how to format a page and standardize the various parts of your page will be covered.
I once read about a college history professor named Dave who often shared his family story about his Uncle Oliver with his students. Uncle Oliver had been a survivor from a downed military aircraft in WWII and had avoided enemy capture for 68 days. That’s all Dave knew about his uncle. There had been some talk about a book somewhere about Uncle Oliver’s story. So, one day Dave “googled” his uncle’s name and sure enough, there was a book about it called “Chippewa Chief in World War II The Survival Story of Oliver Rasmussen in Japan”. It was like the past had suddenly come alive and at last Dave knew many of the details of what really happened. Dave said it was a magical moment. In any case, your story may birth the same magical moment in helping someone “make sense” of someone’s life. Keep in mind that what you are doing by writing about your ancestors is creating a valuable gift for many future generations and it will become a permanent part of history. That’s an inspiring thought.
About Earl Armstrong
Earl spent the first nine years of his life growing up in Oklahoma City. His family moved several times after that and they spent time living in California, New Mexico, Kansas and Arkansas before returning to Oklahoma. As a teen, he moved to Dallas, Texas and then back to Oklahoma where he graduated from high school in 1959. He wrote for his high school newspaper and created cartoons. In 1960, he joined the U.S. Air Force and trained as a weather observer at Chanute AFB in Illinois. The last thirteen months of his Air Force enlistment was in Seoul, Korea. After mustering out, he tried different occupations and finally settled on being a draftsman. Eventually, he became a supervisor for a design department and eventually earned a degree in Industry and Technology from East Texas State University and three years later his Master’s degree. He began a rewarding career as a mechanical design engineer and ended his formal working days as a supervisor for a major pharmaceutical company where he was responsible for company-wide document distribution, software storage. He retired in 2000. Along the way, he wrote numerous short articles for various small publications. Earl and his wife, Pat, have traveled to every state in the U.S. and have visited several areas of the country doing genealogy searches. She is an avid user of Ancestry. He’s a published author in several genres including children’s stories, newspaper articles, a short booklet on spider webs, a book on cellular health issues, and recently authored a personal history and biography for a retired surgeon plus many other miscellaneous writings. For over five years, he has taught a very popular senior education class on memoir and life story writing at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth. In addition, he also periodically teaches a class on weather.