I can find no rule stating that a memoir about family must focus on the writer’s immediate family, but the custom seems to be widely observed. Parents and siblings occupy the foreground. Aunts, uncles, and grandparents take up their positions in a dim and sketchy background. The family tableau appears in this configuration as if no other grouping were possible. But in writing and in life, anything is possible. So why does the genre adhere so rigidly to this form? Continue reading
For some time now, I have been working under the assumption that family history and memoir require some sort of framework to guide the writing. It’s fine to rummage in your store of memory and reflect on the life you have lived. It’s also fine to research your family tree and trace your line of descent from your earliest known ancestor.
But without a theoretical framework, how can you craft a powerful and memorable account? How can you support your idea of the human? How can you justify the words you set down? Continue reading
Some months ago, I wrote a post about my great-grandparents Harry and Tillie Kubrin, the forebears of our line on the Kubrin side. That post started out as a primer on family history craft, but something drew me inexorably to the subject of Harry and Tillie, and I quickly veered off-message. Great-grandparents must be inherently colorful. Just ask Russ Livingston, who recently wrote this post about his great-grandparents. Continue reading
It’s been some time since I actively engaged in genealogical research. It’s not that I’ve lost interest in the topic. My family history project has simply entered another phase, and interviews, transcription, and planning take up most of my time nowadays.
This week, however, I decided to try out JewishGen.org, a site specializes in genealogy for people with Jewish ancestry. I’m glad I did. In just one day, the site cleared up a little mystery about my family that has lingered for generations. Continue reading
Writing about the dead is a lot like writing about the living, except that there are fewer risks. The dead cannot sue you for libel. They cannot sue you for invasion of privacy. They cannot even object to your portrayal of them—not only because they have lost the power of speech, but because they have lost the ability to act. Continue reading
Writing about living people raises a host of legal, personal, and literary issues. If these complications escape your notice while you’re in the throes of writing, try flipping through a family album sometime. Resist the undertow of sentimentality and nostalgia and instead consider the people you see as changeable human beings, with relationships with each other and a relationship with you.
How do you write about your relatives while taking all this complexity fully into account? How do you write about them—truthfully and candidly—without disturbing these relationships? Continue reading
Sometimes we reflect on our lives, and sometimes we don’t. Self-reflection is a natural human trait, but there are limits to its usefulness. If the unexamined life is not worth living, the overly examined one can be a real drag. That’s why we usually rush through life headlong and leave it to memoir to make sense of the past. Continue reading
I’ve been concentrating on oral history lately, typing up interviews from my endless transcription backlog. As a result, genealogical research has been on the back burner. But when I received an Ancestry.com email advising me of some possible matches in the 1940 census, I was intrigued. So I logged onto Ancestry to see what it had found. Continue reading