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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

Family History Meets Memoir - Part I, guest blogger Rebecca McClanahan

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. This posting is Part I of a two part entry. Part II will be up during the first week of May.

Note: For 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. 17

Family History Meets Memoir - Part I

“So, you’re writing your family history,” people said when I mentioned the book I’d been working on for over a decade. “Not exactly,” I answered, not sure of what to say next. Although I’d been poring over hundreds of century-old ancestral letters and artifacts in my search to understand my family’s past, I knew I could not claim to be a historian or even a genealogist. I kept envisioning all the gravestones I’d left unturned, and the scraggly family tree with all the missing branches. No, I finally decided. I am definitely not writing a family history. What I’m writing is a family history memoir.

Here’s the difference: The primarily allegiance of a family historian is to the research itself—to gathering, organizing and recording as much information as possible. When you write a family history memoir, your primary allegiance is not to the research itself but to the larger story you discover through the research, a story that in some way connects to your own. This does not mean that research is not important, or that you play loose with the facts, but rather that you use the knowledge you’ve gained to create a text that is more than a “just the facts, ma’am” report, a text that might appeal to a broad audience of readers.

How do you do this? How do you use research to enrich your memoir and create an artful, lively text that combines your own story with the story of your family or ancestors? Some writers do little or no formal research, relying on their memories of past events or stories passed down. Others conduct extensive searches involving archival documents, site visits, interviews, library and online records, and other sources. But whether you have inherited trunk-loads of ancestral documents, as I did, or only a few family anecdotes, you can use that research to create an engaging memoir. Here are five principles and techniques that helped me while researching and writing The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change.

1. Organize your findings around your main character.

In a family history memoir, your main character can of course be a particular person—such as an ancestor or family member or even (in rare cases) you, the author—but it can also be any other central focus that drives your story. You may decide that your main “character” is actually a place, event, time period, relationship, physical object, image or recurring question. It could be 1930s Detroit, the 65-year marriage of your grandparents, the forest you played in as a child, the specter of alcoholism throughout generations, or, as in the case of my book The Tribal Knot, a physical artifact that embodies your memoir’s main themes.  Read More 

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