Continuing a series of posts on storytelling and some solutions for when we don’t really know the story.
One challenge I have come across through ancestry research and putting together an ancestry album is all of the unknowns. Any attempt at trying to record history seems to be filled with unknowns. It can be frustrating.
I have some old, wonderfully cherished photos, which are hard to come by in my lineage. But one thing that has continually struck me as a memory keeper is not knowing the story.
It has encouraged me to be a better present day memory keeper and record more stories, writing as much information as I can in my scrapbooks and other journals.
Initially it is discouraging, but as I’ve worked through it, I have come up with some ways to make it work and give more context.
I’ve taken some ideas from creative writing education and other journaling techniques I’ve come to learn and use over the years.
I have a love affair with characterization and tend to pull towards authors who have a strong game here. There are endless resources on characterization, including exercises where you answer questions about a character that may not have anything to do with the story, but that helps deepen the familiarity with that character. Some of the same techniques can be applied to real life people when sharing their story. For instance, going through a typical daily routine schedule for that person, what would it look like? What would they do? Think about if it was before inventions like the television or automobile. Instead of being disappointed by the unknowns, I try to focus on what I do know about the person and develop from there. This leads to…
Stories can be told by posing questions. I don’t have all of the facts, but I use various clues and information to make educated guesses about what may have actually been going on. I pose these ideas as questions. For example, my Grandmother was very smart, skipping grades throughout school, but in her time she could only excel to be an Executive Administrative Assistant. I don’t know much else about what she did, but I can ask: Did it bother her that she was maybe smarter than the men she worked for? Did she want a more professional role? These questions speak more to the heart of the person and give a greater picture of someone, versus a snapshot of her standing in a hat & dress.
Using other voices to tell the story can be helpful. I don’t have a lot of information, but I listen closely when my relatives speak about their parents or grandparents and I try to pick up on the subtleties. How their eyes and faces look when they recall a memory. I can use pieces of the stories they tell in their voice to add to the bigger picture, and take cues from their tone and facial expression to inflect the appropriate emotion. A lot of times people tend to recall a good meal the person cooked (which is one reason I try to feed my people well – it may be all they remember!) Another creative way to use voice is to give a voice to an inanimate object. Maybe a house that was lived in by generations or some type of heirloom passed down through family members.
Using sentence fragments or bullet points or short phrases is not grammatically correct in writing, but is a good way to summarize somewhat disjointed ideas. I use this technique often in my scrapbook journaling separating ideas by dot dot dot (…) or two forward slashes (//). Another great way is to list ideas out with bullet points, which can be brads, stickers, or gemstones. I also like using small strips of paper cut up, a somewhat trendy look in scrapbook product right now. This works well in the typewriter because you can type onto various types of paper, whether it be pattern paper, journal card or a graphic paper bag.
I think the hardest thing with studying ancestry is I’m less interested in what they did and more interested in who they were. As I think most people would be. I’m amused by those who are obsessed with job titles and assets. Have you ever seen a gravestone transcribed “here lies John Doe, he was a lawyer and owned a 4 bedroom house with 3 cars”? Probably not. Instead, you see “beloved husband, father & friend” or “faithful servant.” When you pass away, no one cares what you had or your job title, they talk about who you were as a person. If someone was caring or cold, social or quiet, out going or recluse, giving or selfish. Those are the characterizations you hear about. And making sure that comes across in the stories I tell is important to me. Keeping it authentic and real.
Have you run into roadblocks when trying to research ancestry? What are your solutions for dealing with little bits of information?