Southern California Genealogical Society

Point of View: Easy Does It -- But Do It!
By Jean Chapman Snow

Why should you write family stories? Because you have tales only you can tell. Because your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and others will love the stories and anecdotes you share with them.

Lately, I've been prodded into writing my own family tales. I feel time hot on my heels, so-if not now, when? lt's partly due to my age, partly to writing these columns and partly to leading the SCGS Writers' Group. I'm pushed to organize my thoughts, my genealogical information, and begin at last to set down memories and anecdotes.

When will you begin your writing? Already? Good! Helpful suggestions follow. If you haven't begun, perhaps these ideas will stir you to set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. If you don't, who will?

Oh, I know the excuses. I've used them myself.

"I don't know how to write. "I wouldn't know where to start. "I don't have time."

Maybe you've shied away from writing because you think the end product must be a glossy hardbound book with your name as author, Scary, eh? It's too much work, and a book out there in the public eye, even if written only for your family? Oh, no, you couldn't do that. But you can start small with little stories and anecdotes.

Do you have old diaries or letters handed down from your family? If so, how I envy you! Begin your easy writing by transcribing them, then adding your own notes at the start to set the scene, or in a conclusion to put the events mentioned in context. That's not hard, is it?

We genealogists enjoy reading such treasures, even if they are not from our own families. We read biography, autobiography, and memoirs for their fascinating insights of past days, whether they are by or about the famous or not. Have you read and enjoyed McCourt's "Angela's Ashes"? Russell Baker's "Growing Up"? Ulrich's "A Midwife's Tale," based on Martha Ballard's diary? Samuel Pepys' "Diary"? We wouldn't know about those times except that someone put pen to paper.

Ordinary details enthrall us-the weather, a trip to the city, how many jars of tomatoes were put up. What details can you share? You don't have to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning author to write the ordinary details of your own life. Begin gently with a paragraph or a page. Here's how.

Memory joggers.

As ideas or memories strike you, jot them down. That awful (or most favorite) holiday. A loved pet. A harrowing experience. Shoes, hats, tools you've used. Many books include lists to jog your mind. The SCGS library owns Ruth Kanin's "Write the Story of Your Life." You'll find many others in your public library, like Sheila Bender's "Writing Personal Essays," a Writer's Digest book. As you jot ideas and notes, your memory will dredge up more.

Life highlights or turning points.

Make lists of ten or twelve. We label certain periods in life Growing Pains, The Terrible Teens, Coming of Age, The 30-Year Itch, The Midlife Crisis, Growing Old Gracefully. Name your own life periods. Who are you now? How did you get here? Where did you come from? What made you what you are today? Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken," ends:

    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference

Did you, at a certain juncture in your life, take a different path? Write about your choice.

The actual writing.

Whether you can devote fifteen minutes twice a week or 30 minutes every day to write, take that time to write a paragraph or a page. Can you make a regular appointment with yourself to write? Your personal time? Try this 400-word-outline template that I created after reading an article in a Writer's Digest special edition. I've had groups use this fun exercise with delightful results, and I often use it myself as a starter.

The 400 word outline.

Choose a memory jogger and take 20 to 30 minutes to write about your memory

Follow this outline:

  • Write four paragraphs, each with a topic.
  • If each paragraph has about five sentences, you'll have a total of about 20 sentences.
  • Each sentence probably has about fifteen to 20 words.
  • When you're done, write a little introduction of one to two sentences, and voila ... 400 words!

Hints: Don't edit as you write. Head your piece "Rough Draft" or "Work in Progress." Don't worry about grammar and spelling. Just write. It's only a first draft and now you certainly don't need Oscar the Grouch, that infernal-er, internal-critic who sits on your shoulder needling you as you write:

    "You didn't spell that right."
    "Are you sure that's the way it happened?"
    "Don't never use double negatives!"
    "Oh, nobody will read this. Its dull"

Put a sock in it, Oscar! It's hard to squelch him, hut you must. When Oscar groans 'That's awful," your creative self, like a timid little hermit crab, zips back into its comfy shell. Creativity is flow and anything that stops the flow will eventually make the flow cease.

Later, Oscar the Grouch will help you edit and polish your writing, cutting or adding details. Not now, when your creative self is hesitantly peeping out. After you've finished your first draft.

What do you write? Biography? Autobiography? Memoir? Brief anecdotes or sketches?

A true biography is almost always formal, relating someone's life from birth to death, omitting nothing of significance. Autobiography may he formal or informal, serious or humorous. It often omits much, but attempts to tell the whole life story of the writer.

A memoir may be about your own life, or about someone you have known, but it is always an expression of your own point of view or experience. It usually doesn't attempt to describe a whole lifetime. It might focus on one day, ten years, a single incident or a character trait.

Anecdotes or sketches can be about yourself, a family member, an ancestor or a group of people. Usually they concern a single incident or experience, and they can be very short, ranging from a paragraph to a page or two. They go straight to the drama or humor of life.

HERE'S AN EXAMPLE of "work-in-progress." Shuffling through notes I've scribbled, I came upon a paper headed "Musical Highlights." There were names of nine famous opera singers and the title of the opera in which I'd heard them. I had a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera for a few years, so I've seen some wonderful performances.

I skimmed through the names I'd jotted down, and thought "One of these days I've really got to write down what I saw and how I felt." (In other words, a memoir) As I watched TV that evening, the list kept calling me. Finally, I couldn't resist. It may need some research later, perhaps a date, a fuller description to bring my reaction, my slant alive for others. But I picked up the list and wrote a paragraph about each of the nine highlights.

Memory then kicked in with a tenth name, The Aida from Hell. This was an outstanding performance, all right!

Now, "Aida" is the kind of spectacular opera to which you'd take your out-of-town great-aunt who'd never seen an opera. Great music, some of it familiar, colorful costumes, spectacle. Horses in the triumphal march, and sometimes (though not at the Met) elephants and tigers! A good introduction to opera, right? Wrong!

The Met orchestra under a good conductor can play as brilliantly as the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This was not a good conductor. The soprano was shrill, the tenor the sort unkindly called a necktie tenor (a strangled sound), the mezzo best forgotten. After the first act, more than a third of the audience never returned to their seats. I stayed through the second act because I wanted to hear the baritone, just returned from European triumphs. But even he couldn't rescue this dog. After the second act, I, too, scuttled out. Whew! This memoir, of course, is not for publication but for family remembrance.

A final hint: When the Muse strikes you in the middle of the night, as it may, have pen and pad handy to write yourself a note. How many times have I been too sleepy, thinking I'd remember in the morning. Nope. Like dreams, those thoughts vanish at dawn.

Are you ready now to try writing a little of your own memories? I hope I've whetted your appetite!

Point of View: Easy Does It -- But Do It! (c) Jean Chapman Snow SCGS Member Used with permission.
©Jean Chapman Snow. Used with permission.

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