Douglas Fairbanks at third Liberty Loan rally. By Paul Thompson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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
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 number of legal, personal, and literary issues. Of the literary issues, the foremost one is how to form a complete and coherent image of our subject. Or to put it more precisely: how can we restore a vibrant, lifelike conception of a human being from the calcified representation we have formed through long familiarity? 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
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
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
On March 21, the government of Mali was overthrown, and chaos descended on this West African nation of 15 million people. The origins of the coup lay in interlocking crises of rebellion, drought, famine, and the Arab Spring currently roiling the Mideast. Its resolution, which may depend on the military forces of Mali’s neighbors and those of outside powers, cannot be foreseen at this time. But an Associated Press article on Amadou Haya Sanogo, the obscure Army captain who led the coup, brought the whole affair into sharper focus and showed me how family history can sometimes cast a light on history in general.