If you shake your family tree, you may be surprised at the nuts that fall out. People—both present and past—in your life are a rich source for your personal stories. Even if you are writing a straight genealogical account, try to find an incident, a particular characteristic, gesture, habit, or saying that captures some essence of a person and contributes to the heart, as well as the fact, of your story.
My father gave each of us kids a copy of his research into his family tree. I confess, many of the details were just that to me—long ago names with no meaningful point of contact other than we shared a bit of blood. But then I came upon a news clipping about one of those relatives and suddenly “real” people stepped off the page.
Turns out over a hundred years ago, some relatives—a poor, landless family—made their living ferrying firewood and goods in their canal boat around Lake Champlain. When they were caught in a terrible storm, they tried to take shelter at the nearest dock, but the caretaker refused to let them. He untied their boat, which subsequently crashed. They sued the millionaire owner and won. The case Ploof vs. Putnam is still used by law students today. Heartless as the caretaker was, he did have a reason for wanting to protect the owner’s property: the Ploofs were known as “Pirates of Lake Champlain” with a reputation of stealing from summer cottages up and down the lake.
Pirate thieves. Now that puts some life into an otherwise static name and face in a book. Although we are natural storytellers, so often when we put pen to pad, we write some dry, fact-filled piece which is about as interesting as an insurance contract. Here are a few suggestions and examples how to enliven the people who populate your stories:
1. Follow a general statement with a specific image or action: In describing himself, Bob Goff writes:
“I am always in a hurry. I put my socks on two at a time.”
He later re-emphasizes this characteristic with an anecdote about impatiently waiting for a slow moving rental car attendant who Goff had seen “glaciers move faster than.”—Love Does
2. Use dialogue to reveal character. Look at how much we glean about Mary Karr’s mother and Mary’s childhood from this passage in The Liars' Club:
Not long before my mother died, the tile guy redoing her kitchen pried from the wall a tile with an unlikely round hole in it. He sat back on his knees and held the tile up so the sun through aged yellow curtains seemed to pierce the hole like a laser. He winked at my sister Lecia and me before turning to my gray-haired mother, now bent over her copy of Marcus Aurelius and a bowl of sinus-opening chili, and he quipped, “Now Miss Karr, this looks like a bullet hole.”
Lecia didn’t miss a beat, saying, “Mother, isn’t that where you shot at daddy?”
And Mother squinted up, slid her glasses down her patrician-looking nose and said, very blasé, “No, that’s where I shot at Larry.” She wheeled to point at another wall, adding, “Over there’s where I shot at your daddy.”
3. Choose descriptive elements that both paint a picture and contribute to character, as Rhoda Janzen does in her memoir The Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.
My mother, unlike my father, is not classically handsome. But she does enjoy good health. She is as buoyant as a lark on a summer’s morn. Nothing gets this woman down. She is the kind of mother who, when we were growing up, came singing into our bedrooms at 6:00 a.m., tunefully urging us to rise and shine and give God the glory, glory. And this was on Saturday. Upbeat she is. Glamorous she is not.
Besides being born Mennonite, which is usually its own beauty strike, my mother has no neck. When we were growing up, our mother’s head, sprouting directly from her shoulders like a friendly lettuce, became something of a family focus. We’d take every opportunity to thrust hats and baseball caps upon her, which made us all shriek with unconscionable laughter. Mom would laugh good-naturedly, but if we got too out of hand, she’d predict that our Loewen genes would eventually assert themselves.
But be careful what you write:
On her deathbed, Pat Conroy’s mother reportedly told him she found it hard to relax while dying because she knew he’d write down every word she said. (He did—Beach Music) Our stories naturally involve others—some living, some long gone. So what can or should we say about them?
Well, first, if it’s true, not some fabricated slant intended to hurt someone’s reputation, then you may be safe in what you say. Without getting into libel legalities here, I think the more important point is to ask yourself why you are including that particular point. Revenge or discredit doesn’t make good memoir. Then ask yourself if you are willing to live with yourself and accept the consequences of whatever it is you’ve chosen to say. You might show the person involved the part that concerns them, but in the end, it’s your story. Be truthful. Be responsible.
And then there’s this advice from writer Phillip Lopate:
1. Befriend only people who are too poor to hire lawyers to sue you.
2. If you plan to write about friendship, make lots of friends, because you are bound to lose a few.
3. For the same reason, try to come from a large family.
1. Model Rhoda Janzen’s piece about her mother. You could start with “He/she is the kind of person who . . . and then give an example to illustrate the statement.
2. Gestures, expressions, family sayings:
Make a list of sayings you heard growing up: Who said it? How did it reflect their beliefs or values?
Think about a particular person. How did/do they register different emotions—worry, joy, disapproval? Do they take their glasses off? Twitch their nose? Twirl a curl? Whistle?
3. Sketch a scene, an anecdote that illustrates your relationship with a person. For example, if your grandfather was a quiet, patient man, how did he express love to you? Take you fishing? Patiently teach you how to do something?
4. Think of someone who made an impact on you for better or for worse. Write about a specific incident. Try to capture the emotion of the moment without specifically naming it.
And as always, love to hear from you.