We all want to know where we came from, who our ancestors were and how they lived. It’s the lack of information and innate drive to fill the gaps that has made heritage and genealogy businesses so successful. It’s why children magically sit still, their mouths agape in wonder, when those ‘secret’ family stories are told about the time grandma was a little girl and tackled the neighbor boy to deliver a May Day kiss, or how grandpa attached wheels to a stolen outhouse and rolled it down Main Street on a Sunday morning. Okay – it wasn’t my grandfather. That was Dad and his cousin John Kincaid. And, yes, Mom wasn’t about to let that cute boy get away with leaving candy on the doorstep and escape without a peck on the cheek. For those who don’t know, May Day used to be the track ‘n field version of Valentine’s Day without the cards.
The point is that these stories need to be shared. Video legacies are delightful, but they don’t truly convey the passion, the raw emotion, contained within the written word. Videos don’t allow for the tactile mystique a flower discovered pressed between a book’s pages can provide, or the lingering waft of perfume from an unsent love letter.
You don’t have to be bestselling author Robert Tanenbaum, Juliet Marillier, Marcus Sakey, or Marilyn Brant to write your story. Nor do you need to hire editor Ellen Datlow. You just need to write, even if it’s nothing more than a line or two recapping the week’s events.
You may think you have nothing to say, that you’ve never done anything noteworthy, but I promise that you are far more intriguing than you think. What you believe is an uninteresting quirk, such as absolutely needing a cup of green tea to start your Saturday or the entire weekend is off kilter, will have some descendent saying in wide-eyed amazement, “So that’s where I get that from.” The time you huddled under a blanket on the couch while your spouse, armed with a badminton racquet, chased a bat, only to slap the winged creature under the covers with you, will have your great-grandchildren rolling on the floor in laughter. And, I guarantee that passing down the secret ingredient to the butter noodles your family insists be on the table every Thanksgiving will elevate you to immortal fame.
Write your story. Share what your father did every morning before he went to work; your sibling’s most annoying habit, how you pursued a singer’s tour bus to get an autograph, or, how you were too shy to tell that first crush how you felt and still wonder now and then about what might have been.
So, how to begin, and then ensure you don’t stop? I’ll turn that question over to literary author and writing instructor Patricia Ann McNair. Patricia’s missionary grandfather rode a motorcycle over a Korean mountain range just because no one had ever done it before. How sad it would be if that story hadn’t been passed down for his descendants to treasure. Patricia and her award-winning novel “The Temple of Air” can be found at http://patriciaannmcnair.com/
1. Get comfortable. Find a place where you like to sit, choose a pen that makes a nice line, get a journal that opens easily, stays open, and gives you room to write. Make the experience a pleasing one, even if you sometimes find the writing itself a challenge.
2. Make a list, write it quick. James Thurber said, “Don’t get it right, just get it written.” A list can help you do that. Fragments, slivers, a gathering of possibilities. Start with these: “What I Remember;” “What I Don’t Remember;” “What I’d Rather Not Remember;” and “I’ve Been Told.” Don’t think too hard, jot down anything that comes to mind: big events, small details, small events, big details. Look at these lists often, and see what can (or needs to be) written and told more fully.
3. Write a letter. Even though I knew my grandfather’s story, it wasn’t until I found decades of his letters from that time that I really knew the details of his “climbing the crooked trails” (as he referred to his motorcycle missionary work.) In your journal, it can help to address the writing as a letter—to a friend, to a relative, to a stranger who needs to know this story. Or, if you prefer to write an actual letter and mail it to whomever, make sure to keep a copy for yourself. (And not just on your computer…hard copy.) Letters are an invaluable part of our personal histories and narratives.
4. Make it a habit. Some say it takes 21 days to develop a habit. Set aside some time every day for 21 days to write in your journal. You might start writing a story one day, and then leaving off before the “good” part. The next day’s writing should come easier then; pick up where you left off.
5. Read. Every writer needs to be a reader.
I (Patricia) thought I would alert you to the Chicago Writers Conference. http://www.chicagowritersconference.org/ I'll be presenting there, and the woman who is its founder, Mare Swallow, is really sharp. Past participants from the inaugural conference last year have already had some successes, including a woman who got a three-book deal. Just thought it might be an interesting thing for readers to know about.
DA Kentner is an award-winning author www.kevad.net