by Deborah Nielsen
Every family has stories. Usually told around the dinner table. Do you remember all the stories grandma told about growing up when you were little? Or the story about when your great uncle ran after the Model T yelling, “Whoa, damn you! Whoa!” just before the woodpile stopped it?
Memories fade, and people die, and the stories are gone along with them. That’s the problem with oral history. It has a tendency to disappear. Families can lose history and the threads binding them all together.
When I’ve attended a writers’ event of some sort over the years, I usually meet a person who is there because they want to learn how to preserve those family stories in writing. Then they say, “But I’m not a writer.” They take copious notes and end up feeling overwhelmed. In their mind, a writer is this mystical creature who can effortlessly put words on paper that everyone wants to read. “I just want to do a book for the family,” they say.
If this is what you want to do and you’re frozen in your tracks when you think of writing, maybe it would help to think of yourself as a family historian. You don’t have to be that mystical creature. They really don’t exist anyway. They’re just people like the rest of us. They put a lot of effort, sweat and tears, sometimes, into becoming that mystical creature known as a best-selling author. Writers cover a far broader spectrum. Historians, for example.
So sit down with Mom and Dad or your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, even close family friends before it’s too late and get them talking. Maybe put on a pot of coffee. Tell them what you want to do. Ask them if it’s all right to take notes or if you can set out a tape recorder. Collect all the stories you can. This may take a few months and involve some trips to visit relatives, long phone calls, or Skype chats. Or you may be able to accomplish it during a family reunion weekend. You may also find stories in old letters.
After you gather as many stories as you can, then comes the hard part. Transcribing them and putting them into some kind of order. You may need to do a little research or follow up for dates or to put a story in context. You can add a short introduction to a story or add some narrative family history to tie stories together.
Then ask a trusted family member or family friend to read over sections that you may have questions about. Maybe they’ve heard a different version of a story. Ask them for their honest feedback. How does it read to them? Does it make sense?
After you're satisfied that you have the stories down the best you can, have someone read the whole thing. Choose your reader(s) carefully. Ask them to note parts that don’t make sense or read clumsily. Then rewrite as necessary. You don’t have to take all of their suggestions.
When you’re finished with the project, and you want to have it printed, take one more step and have someone read it for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and consistency.
A print-on-demand (or P.O.D.) publisher may be your best choice to publish your family history. When you load your manuscript, you may have the option of adding family photographs. They can add even more texture to your stories or be compiled in a separate section of the book.
Gathering stories, writing them down, putting them in order and adding some narrative are what historians do. In the process, you’ll also become a writer.