When I began writing family history, I knew that I might come into conflict one day with relatives objecting to my account of our shared past. That day has apparently arrived.
Long after my family history is finished, after the writing is done, after my book is published (or not), after all my relatives and I myself are gone, our voices will still be audible in digital recordings. Our words will also be legible, provided anyone takes the trouble to dig through my files. I have no idea how posterity might receive this archive. I’m still grappling with the oddity of this situation in the present. 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
Writing family history is first and foremost an exercise in selection. Reviewing that hoard of letters, photographs, diaries, family legends, and oral history from which you compose your account, you must decide continuously which details to include and which to leave out. Continue reading
I was down in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago for another round of spelunking in the family archives. My explorations were extremely successful. I found scads of old letters, notebooks, calendars, and greeting cards. My grandmother was a terrific archivist, and my mother has preserved everything. Continue reading
Days, weeks, or months after I interview a relative, I transcribe the conversation. Transcription is more than an afterthought, more than a perfunctory step I take by rote. When I transcribe, I feel like I’m reliving the original interview. It puts me in a thoughtful frame of mind.