As I move more deeply into the effort of writing a family history, I find myself reading more widely in the genre. You can’t work without taking stock of the precedents in your line. To write a family history, I have to come to grips with the genre itself, to learn lessons from those who have come before me and to keep up with current offerings. So today I set up a new blog category, Readings, to capture my thoughts on other family histories. Christopher Benfey’s Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay is the first entry in this category. There will be others. Continue reading
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
Writing about living people is one of the most difficult tasks a memoirist or essayist will face. With legal, ethical, personal, and literary issues confronting you all at once, the effort of writing may double in intensity. If you are a fluent writer, the double-think required here may slow your composition to a crawl. If you are a slow, cautious writer even at the best of times, these obstacles may bring your writing nearly to a standstill. But persevere, because some of the best writing arises from the most difficult circumstances. 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