There is family history, and then there are histories of families so compelling they interest a general reader. For writers seeking publication for personal stories and memoir, the panel discussed how to craft work that intrigues readers far beyond those in our ancestral lines; readers who don’t know Aunt Florence or Cousin Clovis and never will.
James McKean (Home Stand: Growing Up in Sports) recalled that whenever he would ask his grandmother for details about their family’s past, she would simply say, “It’s not for you to know.” The answer had the opposite of its intended effect, and McKean became more, not less, interested in both his family’s history but in his grandmother’s specifically. He learned she was an Olympic swimmer and received a bronze metal for the Women’s 100 meter freestyle in the infamous 1936 “Nazi” Olympics in Berlin. Tying family history to an historical event can give a work broader appeal but also can allow the writer to tell their story against a backdrop of a larger history. This experience became “Bronze, 1936,” an essay in his collection. A recent issue of Southern Humanities Review published a second essay on the same topic titled, “So Much More.”
If you think writing about family members after they’re dead is the way to go, panelist Justin St. Germain (Son of a Gun: A Memoir) says you are both right and wrong. “It is both easier and harder when the person you are trying to write about is dead,” he said. “They can’t argue, but then again you also will feel a great deal of responsibility to get it right.” St. Germain’s mother was murdered when he was twenty. At twenty-seven he began writing about it and realized how little he actually knew about the crime, but also about his mother. “Think about it. How much do we really know about our own parents? Especially when we’re only twenty years old?” The narrative of his memoir follows the narrative of his search for information. At the beginning the book is mostly about St. Germain. As it reaches a conclusion, it becomes more about the mother he is getting to know through his research.
On a lighter note, stand-up hopeful June Melby (My Family and Other Hazards: A Memoir) wrote about the quirky family she grew up in and their sudden decision to purchase a miniature golf course and run it as a summer family business. She hated the idea, hated giving up her summers and school vacations to work there but still wanted to write about the experience. She expected to retreat into the words and to focus on everyone else but that wasn’t going to work. “I didn’t want it to be my story, I wanted it to be my family’s story, but then I realized it did have to have a point of view.” She said she wrote from the vantage point of considering, What is success? Her plan to be a comedian failed, while her parents sold the golf course for a large profit and retired comfortably.
The room was quite full, the audience was full of good questions, and some of the best advice was, do your research before interviewing people, even your own family members, so that you can ask specific questions. Then be willing to sit silently and listen. Use dialogue to capture characters in ways that narrative can not. In revision, consider the overall movement of your narrative and cut the parts that don’t move, even if you love the writing. Be aware that some family members may be hostile to the idea. Consider who you are willing to alienate and why. And finally, if there is a story told over and over in your family that you’d like to include, remember that a reader is not going to know any of the background information implicit in families. Make sure you add it in and tell the complete anecdote or the meaning will be lost on the reader.
Mardi Jo Link (mardijolink.com) is the author of Bootstrapper (Knopf), a memoir of farming, chicken wrangling, and single parenthood. She lives in Traverse City, Michigan.