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.
Each decision is complex and fraught with unforeseen consequences. Stories get tangled up with each other. If you include the story of, say, your grandfather’s brief first marriage, you must also include the characters and history attached to that phase of his life. Including this episode may add extraneous detail and bog down your narrative. Omitting it may streamline your narrative at the expense of a clear and faithful portrait of your grandfather.
You face these questions repeatedly, and each one requires vision and discipline. Answering them is never easy.
What you put in and what you leave out depends on your goals and the audience you are trying to reach. How you handle these inclusions and omissions depends on the type of writer you are and the voice you have created for your piece.
If your family history emphasizes genealogy, you may take a comprehensive approach, including as many ancestors and incidental details as you can unearth. There’s nothing wrong with this method—every historian wants to be thorough, and completeness is a virtue in memoir and family history. Besides, research is a formidable challenge. A dazzling display of skill in this area is impressive.
Just because your method is data-driven, however, doesn’t mean you’ll use every nugget you find. You may want to omit details you can’t verify—a half-forgotten quarrel, a rumored infidelity, or an ancestor’s alleged drunkenness or arrest record. This method also has its virtues, both ethical and aesthetic. Passing on rumors comes perilously close to gossip. Arresting their flow can be a responsible act, a form of good family citizenship. Including only verifiable facts increases the accuracy and credibility of your history.
My own aim is to write a rich and vibrant account of my family history. Like Kathy Pooler, I believe memoir writers should use the same techniques as novelists. A memoir or family history needs all the things that make a novel come alive—conflict, action, dialogue, quirky characters, vivid descriptions, and a strong narrative voice.
I include pertinent facts that advance the narrative or reveal a character’s drives, conflicts, or emotions. If a fact does not fit the logic of my scene, character, or narrative, I leave it out. I want my story to have unity: everything that belongs in it, nothing that doesn’t. I also include arresting images and other details that provide verisimilitude. I want my history to be persuasive.
Occasionally, I indulge myself in some name dropping. My grandfather once saw Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford grandly enter a ballroom. A few years later, according to family legend, he nearly had a fistfight with the great actor’s son when Douglas Jr. made a pass at my grandmother. One uncle encountered G. David Schine at the height of the Army-McCarthy hearings. Another uncle knew Stokeley Carmichael and the physicist Richard Feynman; he still counts Daniel Ellsberg among his friends.
Name dropping is irresistible, of course, but I don’t do it simply because these historical figures make my relatives seem more important. Their encounters with these figures are invariably telling. They illuminate my relatives and the times they lived in. Besides, it’s satisfying for readers to find something familiar. As we graft the unknown onto the known, our world grows larger.
Finally, I include apocrypha and informed speculation to fill in the blanks about my characters. It is not simply rumor mongering to do so, but rather intelligent reasoning about my characters by the people who know them best. But I’m careful not to pass on these unverified accounts as fact. When I’m dealing in legend and guesswork, I say so plainly.
After hearing so much about what I put in, you might be wondering what I leave out. Most of the time, my relatives have freely shared their life stories with me, and I’ve been moved by their forthrightness and candor. But in a few cases, my relatives have told me things in confidence, and these things I keep to myself.
I’m a family historian, not a journalist or muckraker. I’m also a son, brother, and nephew. This book I’m writing will itself become part of my family’s history. As I follow the traces of my ancestors and nearer relatives, I think about the trail I myself will leave behind.
© 2012 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.