This post is Part 2 of a two part entry. See # 17 below for part 1.
This month’s guest is Rebecca McClanahan, a writer/teacher whose poetry, literary nonfiction, and essays on/about the genre I’ve always admired. Her piece below, Family History Meets Memoir grows out of her latest book, The Tribal Knot, a poetic, deeply human, family memoir.
Note: Anyone who follows this blog and is interested in learning more about the genre and its craft, I urge you to look into the River Teeth Conference, May 17-19. Rebecca will be one of the keynote speakers and I’ll be on a panel about structure in memoir.
River Teeth Conference
Blog No. 18
FAMILY HISTORY MEETS MEMOIR - Part 2 by Rebecca McClanahan
3. Re-enact history for your readers.
Reconstructed or imagined scenes can enliven your family history memoir, filling in the blanks that remain after the research is complete. Consider these possibilities:
• THE TELLING OF THE TALE: This type of scene grows out of an interview or conversation between you and another family member or informant. Whether you transcribe the conversation word for word or rely solely upon memory, your goal is to give the reader a sense of the storytelling moment itself. As in most effective monologue or dialogue scenes, the words spoken are often not as important as the manner in which they are delivered. As you write, include details such as pauses, voice inflections, repetitions and gestures. When you asked your uncle about his duty in the Vietnam War, did he look out the window, light another cigarette and change the subject? These clues are part of the telling of the tale, as are details about the interview environment. Was it a stormy afternoon? What song was playing on the radio? When the phone rang, did your uncle ignore it, or jump up to answer it? Was your uncle’s ancient dog sleeping across his lap? Put the reader in the moment with you, any way you can.
• RECONSTRUCTED OR IMAGINED EVENTS: Just because you weren’t present at an event—for instance, your great-aunt’s 1904 wedding—doesn’t mean you can’t write a scene based on the research material you’ve gathered. Build on what you have, whether it’s a photograph of her wedding dress, a letter or newspaper clipping, the weather report from that January day (easily accessible from archival sources), pages from that year’s Sears catalog, or memories of your conversations with your great-aunt. Create the scene that might have been, should have been, or even—if you enter the territory of negative space—what could never have been. As you write, create as full a scene as you would for a fictional story. Describe the sights, sounds, smells and textures you encounter. Let us hear the voices of the characters, watch them move through the room. Just remember to supply navigation tools for the reader. Phrases such as “I imagine” or, “In my mind, the French doors open into a parlor,” alert the reader that you are moving into reconstructed or imagined scenes.
4. Draw upon your personal connection to the facts.
Ask yourself, “Why am I drawn to this subject at this particular time in my life?” Quite often, events in the author’s life trigger an interest—even an obsession—with family history. Perhaps you recently received a cancer diagnosis or gave birth to your first child, or your parents are entering an assisted-living center. Although the author’s life is not usually the central focus of a family history memoir, his story often intersects with those of the family members or ancestors in the spotlight.
If you decide that a current situation in your life relates to your family history, you can weave that situation into the larger narrative, as Terry Tempest Williams did in Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. You can also create a double-strand text, alternating your present-tense story with your ancestors’ histories. Your personal story can even form the narrative timeline for the book, with family research details carefully selected to illuminate your own account.
Yet even if your personal story remains in the background, your stake in the proceedings should be clear, or, to paraphrase Rust Hills in his discussion of the peripheral narrator in fiction, you must be “the one moved by the action.” You are the reader’s guide through the text, and he will probably sense your personal connection through your selection and arrangement of research details, your voice and tone, and even the rhythm and sounds of your sentences. Here are more explicit methods for revealing your connection to the research: (more…)