October is Family History Month, Unofficially

Meerkats have close-knit families.
October will be observed as Family History Month by many states, libraries, genealogical societies, and other groups.

Each year since 2000, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has introduced a resolution adopted by the Senate declaring October National Family History Month. It is not official, though, unless the President of the United States issues a proclamation, and he can’t issue a proclamation unless the House and Senate pass a concurrent resolution.

While we’re waiting on the House and the President (did you bring your sleeping bag, snacks, and flashlight?) here are some resources you can use now.

National Park Service –
NPS declares “more than 80 million Americans are believed to be actively searching for more information about their ancestors.” The NPS Teaching with Historic Places series offers lesson plans focusing on family heritage, including well-known and lesser-known figures and places in U.S. history. 

Minnkota Genealogical Society, Grand Forks, North DakotaSixteen suggestions including creating a family cookbook, photo album, and family tree.

About.com Ten tips including recording family stories, uncovering your family health history, and crafting a heritage gift. Missouri observes November as Family Health History Month.

Get serious about starting your family tree – Onegreatfamily.com and ancestry.com are among fee-based sites. 1000memories.com is a free site that enables you to bring your albums, scrapbooks, and photo-filled shoe boxes out of the closet and into an online shareable space.

Start a family history blog – Several free blog-hosting services are available. Find out more at familysearch.org

Public libraries – Check with your public, college, or university library for suggestions and materials. Watch a three-minute YouTube video by Mooresville, Indiana Public Library. The Library of Michigan has a day-long Family History Month Workshop October 29 in Lansing.

Regional observances – Your state university, local library, and newspaper are places to search for regional observances. The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill series, Documenting the American South, is highlighting “slave narratives that preserve family histories, lineages, and traditions.”

Give family members a blank notebook – Here is a list of fifty-three questions to jog memories.

Ten Steps to Discover Your Roots – Family Tree Magazine has a free webinar you can watch or you can download the presentation as a slide show.

If you would like the President to declare October National Family History Month next year, write to him and to your Representative and Senator. How to write Members of Congress. Contact forms are on their websites, but a handwritten or typed one-page letter is more effective. The President’s address is: The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500.

What is going on in your city, county, or state to observe Family History Month? How will you participate?

Photo: Meerkats at the Auckland Zoo, New Zealand by Ashleigh Thompson.

To Tell the Truth

The Plain Truth
This article is a variation of my guest post on Sharon Lippincott’s blog, The Heart and Craft of Life Writing.

A common oath for courtroom witnesses is: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” While witnesses may still raise their right hands, the use of a Bible in taking the oath has mostly gone out of favor in deference to a variety religious beliefs. The word God is deleted for Atheists and Muslims.

Rotary International encourages members to use its Four-Way Test in all personal and business matters: "Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?"

Which brings me to memoirs; to what extent are writers of memoirs required to tell the truth? After all, a memoir is a collection of remembrances, not an exercise in journalism. The best memoirs tell good stories with conflicts, lessons learned, issues resolved or not, and changes that bring growth. Can a memoirist accurately and fairly remember all that stuff, especially the dialogue? And do readers really care?

Liars or good storytellers?
Storytelling has its extremes. Local and regional liars’ clubs encourage the telling of tall tales for fun. Mary Karr, in The Liars' Club: A Memoir, tells of “a terrific family of liars and drunks” with tidbits and chunks of redeeming truths. Some critics claimed to be unable to tell whether, in some cases, Karr was retelling a fabrication or creating one. She made up the name Leechfield, Texas as her hometown, probably to spare the feelings of residents of her real hometown because of the gritty and raw nature of her childhood.

James Frey was embarrassed by national media when the media revealed much of his bestseller, A Million Little Pieces, was made up; Oprah Winfrey publicly rebuked him for lying after she initially praised him.

A lot of movies are declared to be based on true stories. Based on are the operative words; in many cases, if not most, the opening credits should include, “Some of the following is true.”

Does memoir qualify as creative nonfiction, that ambiguous and relatively new term for using fiction writing techniques to tell true stories? Lee Gutkind posits creative nonfiction encourages personal viewpoint and conjecture.

One way to evaluate a memoir
Ben Yagoda and Dan DeLorenzo, writing for the Nieman Storyboard project at Harvard University, declared there are no simple answers for the complex questions surrounding truth in memoirs. That said, they tried to take on the problems of memoir inaccuracies by constructing a scoring system, a system they admit is half-facetious and half-serious. They rate inaccuracies according to their negative reflections on people, living or dead; corroboration of facts; questionable dialogue; clich√©s and flat writing; and self-deprecation. A passing score is 65 out of 100. They applied their scoring to nine memoirs from the year 397 CE to 2009 CE. Ernest Hemingway’s A Movable Feast received a 69, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces got 29, and Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue: An American Life got 69. Read the full scoring report and download a printable worksheet to evaluate your memoir. It is a subjective process, since we are all biased about our own work, but it could prove insightful.

The bottom line
What does all this mean for today’s writers of memoirs? If you want to be accepted and respected then you must be as accurate and truthful as possible. What does it mean for today’s readers of memoirs, who are the final judges because they approve or reject memoirs based on what they buy? As Yagoda and DeLorenzo said, “. . . an informed reader has to make the call.”

Photo: First page of The Plain Truth, a 1747 political pamphlet published by Benjamin Franklin. Courtesy www.librarycompany.org.

What challenges have you faced in writing the truth in your memoir, life story, or family history?

Richard and Judy Dockrey Young: Making Your Family Story Worth Telling

Judy and Richard
Guest article by Richard and Judy Dockrey Young

Every family has stories. Family members involved in those stories find them fascinating. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the human race couldn’t care less. To make your family story come alive, focus not so much on family and more on story.

Give your characters multi-dimensions
A story must have characters, the actors in the action of the story. Make your characters interesting by giving them several layers. “My Uncle John...who never left the house without his red suspenders...” Mention veterans’ service, any good works for which the character is remembered, anything unique that adds to the listeners’ understanding of who your characters are. “Your Aunt Dolly, who was the only woman to win the Barker County Fair pie eating contest...” Your listeners (or readers) must care about the characters and about what happens to them. Make them human, not superhuman (unless your Uncle Albert was surnamed Schweitzer) or simple stereotypes. Make them sympathetic, such that we care about them; we feel with them the pain of the problems they face.

A well-told story must have a plot, or storyline, and that almost always involves a problem that needs to be solved. In fact, most anecdotes from families already involve a problem faced by the members since simple daily events like cooking breakfast rarely evince a memory worthy of being preserved in an anecdote. If all you have is an event like how Grandma cooked breakfast, compare it to modern kitchen gadgets...use thought-provoking and memory-evoking words to recreate the event. “She made white sausage gravy so thick the spoon would stand up in the bowl!” Even properly presented, such a non-event might be dull to your listeners and readers.

Go beyond just the facts
The listener (or reader) also needs to know the setting, the ambiance, the milieu of the story. Don’t just list a lot of cold facts (...the northwest corner of Township 9 Range 11 in Bowie County...) Use words that pull up memory pictures like “log cabin, Dust Bowl, North Woods, Arizona desert, brownstone, Victorian home” etc. Use sensory words (taste, smell, touch, sound, sights) and emotional ties (“I loved the way she always put honey into hot tea.”) Include details you remember about the room, the house, the barn, or wherever the story takes place. A long list of facts, with no sensory or emotional ties, is usually boring. Compare “The log cabin was really old.” to “The faint scent of pine lingered, even though the logs of the cabin had been cut fifty years before.”

Once you create characters listeners/readers care about, in a setting they can understand and appreciate, the plot or storyline must flow quickly to keep their attention. Rising action describes how the problem unfolds and worsens. The climax--which is usually not the end of the story, unless it’s some kind of joke story--tells how the problem was solved or the event came to an end. After that, the so-called falling action or d√©noument (French for “untying the knot”) should be very brief. Most inexperienced storytellers talk long after the story has technically ended.

Combine dialogue and traits
Unless your story must be absolutely exact in its details, consider combining two or even several characters into one for simplicity. For example, have the uncle say what he actually said, plus what the neighbor said. The fewer the characters, the tighter the construction of the story.

If it’s a comic story, you might stretch the actual happenings for comic effect, but don’t go overboard. “Uncle Josh got bit three times by that billy goat before he realized it wasn’t...” (he really only got bit once, but if he stuck around to get bit twice more, the effect may be funnier.)

Repeated images can give structure to action and may add humor (“No matter where we moved to, pretty soon there was a pile of useful junk behind the chicken house...”) But, again, don’t go overboard.

One of the best tests of your story (or memoir) is peer review by non-family members.

Best wishes and may all your stories be well-told!

Richard and Judy Dockrey Young of Kimberling City, Missouri are authors of nine books on storytelling. They present workshops and programs for children, libraries, professional storytellers, and nonprofessionals. They may be reached at www.yawp.com/stories/.

Photo: Mark Anderson

What storytelling techniques have you found most useful, or troublesome, in writing your life story?

Dawn and Morris Thurston: How to Write a Story People Will Want to Read

Morris and Dawn Thurston
Book Review: Breathe Life into Your Life Story: How to Write a Story People Will Want to Read
Dawn Thurston and Morris Thurston
Signature Books, 2007
Softcover, 213 pages including index and appendices

This book is in my reading guide at amazon.com.

Husband and wife Dawn and Morris are teachers and writers who took a genealogy course together and were hooked on the stories of their ancestors, not just the names and dates. Dawn is the author of a book about her Scottish grandparents, Remembering William Miller and Bella Bullock Miller. Morris is the author of a book about his great-great-grandfather, Tora Thurston: The History of a Norwegian Pioneer.

Breathe Life into Your Life Story
On their students: “Few begin the writing process knowing which stories they will end up telling, what themes will merge, what form it will take.”

On would-be memoir writers: “Most are everyday people writing about everyday experiences. The problem isn’t the content of their stories; it’s the way they tell them.”

On writing: “It’s obvious to most people that they can’t learn to play the piano or master an athletic skill simply by reading a book about it. The same principle applies to writing. We learn by doing.”

On recalling conversations: “Most memoirs contain conversations [and incidents] the author can’t possibly remember verbatim unless someone recorded them. We understand this, trusting the author has probably done her best to recall the event as honestly as she can.”

The Thurstons address these issues and much more by showing how to use fiction-writing techniques to write a compelling life story, including:
  • Begin with action.
  • Show rather than tell.
  • Focus on key events.
  • Give your characters (that would be your relatives, friends, colleagues) personalities and behaviors.
  • Link your life to historical events.
  • Use conflict and suspense.

Learn by doing
An appendix of learn-by-doing exercises lists thirty-nine specific things to resurrect your memories and construct your stories. Our brains are muddled by many excuses for not starting.

“My life is not worth writing about.”

“I don’t know correct grammar and punctuation.”

“People will think I’m arrogant.”

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes I can’t write about.”

To which the authors say: “Ignore the noise in your head. Trust your heart. Get your feet wet.” If you follow their plan, you will be energized and satisfied, you will develop new insights, you will have pride in your accomplishments, and at times you won’t be able “to get the words onto the page fast enough.”

Writing is a learned skill. It can be a painful struggle. But the Thurstons’ practical recommendations, based on years of teaching and observing, mentoring and coaching, writing and publishing, will not only get you started right with a solid foundation, they will keep you going to finish your life story.

“We have had the satisfaction of seeing many of our students blossom into wonderful writers.”

The book is laid out with plenty of white space so you can follow the text comfortably. To reinforce key points, the lessons are punctuated with quotes from well-known writers including E. L. Doctorow, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Clancy, and Alfred Hitchcock.

Breathe Life into Your Life Story is available online and in bookstores.

If you’ve read this book, what did you think of it? How did it help you, or not? Is there another book you recommend? To write a book review or guest article for this blog, see guidelines

Photo courtesy Dawn and Morris Thurston.

Next week: More on storytelling by master storytellers Richard and Judy Dockrey Young.