Trying to write on a topic with a reasonably reliable periodicity turns you into a sort of vulture—flying slightly above the writings of others so you might pick free some carrion to feed your own column. This cannibalism has a long-standing tradition. Of course, to take the effort of others and claim it’s your own constitutes plagiarism, and I told my middle-school students that the easiest way to avoid such an allegation is by giving credit, putting content of others into context with quotes, and trying to put the results of their collective research into your own words. The joke is that taking from one is plagiarism; taking from many is research.
There is a time when the information acquired from all your readings and research morphs into a collective knowledge. The distinction is the difference between knowledge researched for a particular purpose (essay or report) and that collected and accumulated over time to become part of your general library of knowledge.
Of course, and ideally, after a reasonable amount of research, you should discover your brain starts to come up with some of its own original interpretations of the acquired knowledge and you find yourself adding to the discussion of a topic rather than borrowing from it. One place this can happen is family histories—where your ancestors speak through you. You give them voice. You tell rather than report their stories.
For the most part, therefore, rules of plagiarism do not strictly apply, and unless family discussions and debates and arguments were recorded, it is you, the biographer, who must re-create the “likely” story and fill in the gaps in your family’s history. Where along the continuum of accurate facts at one end and complete conjecture at the other any single piece of family history resides is something you must determine along with how best to present it. Sometimes the best way to fill in the gaps is with the most likely and logical conjecture.
William Novak—he co-wrote memoirs of such famous people as Lee Iacocca, Magic Johnson, Oliver L. North, Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., Nancy Reagan and Tim Russert—referred to autobiographies or family biographies as the books “very few will read.” That is why the form might be a very good place to practice your writing skills. Let’s label it “family writing”.
Unless you have committed some faux pas that has gotten you ostracized, excommunicated, or otherwise disowned, direct family sources is the place to start the research from which you could draft, i.e., piece together, a family history, which is really nothing more than a collection of events populated by relatives that helps explain how your family got from point A to point G, or wherever. You might not be able to put together a chronological history because Aunt Bessie’s side of the family ended when she ran off with the milkman in St. Louis, but with a little effort, there is a tale to tell, you just have to locate the tidbits that fit together and bridge the gaps.
The beauty is that biography has changed in recent years, from the dry and boring to the delightfully entertaining because the focus has gotten away from the recitation of facts and statistics to using them to tell story. You get to blend the talents of an historian, journalist, and novelist to recreate an era.
Where to start your story? How about with some intriguing family member or event? You don’t have to start at the beginning. Why not in the middle and use flashbacks to fill in the historic gaps as you move your family forward through time? In my case, I discovered that my grandmother on my mother’s side traveled by covered wagon as a young girl to Ogallala in the Sand Hill Country of Northwest Nebraska. Her father, John Eckstein, had served in the Civil War (Union Army Captain), and apparently obtained training in engineering and/or architecture (likely in Germany where that part of the family originated).
Family history has it that he designed the courthouse in my hometown, which I would give as one reason I went to law school—courthouses are in the family blood. But the fun part of the story that my grandmother let me in on, as if it were a secret of utmost titillating importance, is that he also got a gig to design the courthouse in Ogallala. My grandmother explained that the two structures bore a striking similarity. Her smile indicated that she was proud that my great grandfather apparently had peddled the same set of blueprints twice. That might explain why so many old courthouses looked so similar.
What I have not done is invest any effort to research the history in order to determine if there is more than a grain of truth behind the story and how I might write that part of my family history were I to become inclined to do so.
My family didn’t produce many journal or diary keepers—as far I know, only me—so my research would depend on outside sources: public records, local media articles . . . and a trip to Northwest Nebraska, in an effort to separate fact and fiction and family legend. (Who knows, there might be a group of left-over, fanatically dedicated descendants of a lynch mob lying in wait for me to seek revenge for some dastardly deed my ancestors committed! A story of true dedication.) Your family history might be the story of your effort to find your family history.
Suddenly there is the issue about accuracy. Inevitably, one will need to fill in the gaps between the absolute certainty of family facts and segments for which no history exists—a lost decade here or there. There is that old saw: “When there’s a choice between history and legend, write the legend.” A good biographer will let his or her readers know when they are doing which, but a family history will provide many challenges to journalistic objectivity.
If you want to stay true to the concept of biography or autobiography, a serious research effort might result in widening your audience and writing something beyond a chapter intended just for the family. The more entangled a family history becomes with broader historical events, the audience shifts from family into a considerably broader and deeper readership.
In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, companies existed that sent agents into small towns to write the history of the city and county and populace. The idea, of course, was to report histories that tended to mention everybody and every family in order to sell as many books as possible. My grandmother had such a volume and chuckled at the level of embellishment she discovered in its pages.
To find truth, you typically have to drill a little deeper into a mountain of facts, which tend to accumulate haphazardly. The ultimate goal is not to embarrass your family but to enlighten it. As Novak says, “not every memoir has to be a confessional, and no rule, heavenly or human, requires us to disclose every detail of our lives. Call me old-fashioned,” he continues, “but I’d rather explore the qualities and actions that will inspire future generations. Chances are, they will inspire me.”
I’m not sure I agree with that. I find family dirt can be more intriguing than finding some other family’s dirt. It has more to do with how you handle it and write about it. The most sordid of relationships contain some fundamentally decent morals that hold the sordid bricks together. In reality, however, what you find when you start to pry into your family history is that family members tend to want to present the family in the best possible light. You might be willing to diss the shirt-tale relation on your mother’s side, but reluctant to do the same to dad’s far off cousins. The Mormon side of my family has taken my dad’s side of the family back to early New York landings of Europeans. Did the French heritage of Dad’s family start out as pirates in the early days of Long Island? That rumor and conjecture can easily be adopted and become historical fact. I’d love to welcome a few early buccaneers into the family, but I want them to have really existed.
That is one of the problems with family histories—they are frequently motivated to put controversy and intrigue in the front row seat of history—or the back—when in reality our family members were mere bystanders . . . if that. Of course, if the second cousin on your mother’s side died in prison from syphilis, you might get to enjoy the challenge of digging up the truth and finding the humanity of his (or her) experiences and putting them in another and more favorable light. You’re a writer!
Years ago I knew an executive in a Midwestern power company who told how his father met his end on a California gallows—for killing the husband of the woman in whom he had a “romantic interest.” Rather than a small part of a cocktail conversation, the story could likely have been developed into several chapters of a family indiscretion, especially if the family history included letters of relatives discussing the case and reports in the local press about the hanging. Murder yes, but for love. How romantic.
Some families, or a few family members, might be resistive to airing the family’s “dirty laundry” on the public clothesline. But family memoirs are meant to be for family; others, with more historical impact, beg for a broader audience. Novak also points out “private books don’t demand complete structure consistency.” Make the form fit the content, he suggests. “There are times, for example, when the best way to handle a complicated or controversial subject is to present an edited conversation that reflects several viewpoints. I don’t take these liberties too often,” says Novak, “but it’s nice to have options.”
Let’s face it, it’s likely that most family facts will produce more boredom than titillation, but you can add a bit of sparkle by putting aspects of your family history into a broader—local, state, national, international—historical perspective. Maybe your grandparents met working on a World War II scrap iron drive in their hometown. They might even have received recognition for their efforts to collect scrap in an old Radio Flyer wagon, and so what started as a blurb in the local paper mushroomed into romance. Adding information about scrap-iron drives and the role they played would provide the stage upon which your relatives acted. (The reality is such drives didn’t contribute much to the steel supply but were successful in generating support for the war effort). And, so what if the closest Grandpa Miller ever got to action during the war was peeling potatoes. The story might get interesting were you to explore the who, what, when, where, and how of those peeled potatoes and their importance in energizing the troops. Sometimes, the people a past family relative met and knew add spice to a family history. A long-deceased surgeon father-in-law cherished his picture standing at the bedside of a wounded GI next to Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower.
I had a distant and considerably older relative—Cookie Clark—who served in World War I. My father told me before he went to war Cookie “wasn’t worth the powder to blow his brains out,” but came home a really decent person. Cookie and I worked together one summer for the County Conservation Commission. One of our jobs was to kill weeds in a “back forty” path along an old railhead that was to become part of a planned future lakebed. He drove the little cub tractor and I straddled the cowling taking out the enemy with my spray gun as we crept along.
I lacked the courage to ask him much about his war experiences and he offered few, but I really benefited from getting to know and work with a truly wonderful human being. In a family history, he might get little more than a nod, but it would be an important nod.
Years ago, I had the glorious opportunity to attend the last concert of the reconstituted Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band in San Jose. The band had toured the country playing music from Miller’s arrangements originally played to entertain Allied troops during World War II. The evening became even more memorable when the emcee opened discussion to the audience to share their experiences. One elderly audience member stood up and shared how he would hop on a plane and transport Miller’s radio program recordings from London across the Channel for broader distribution though the Armed Forces radio network to homesick GIs in Europe.
I hope some family member wrote that man’s story. And that is the lesson here. We all sit on top of a mountain of family stories. We just need to dig them out and up and breathe life into them. And what a great way to explore writing biography, or even autobiography—to write a family history from your point of view that weaves the events past into the web that makes the present. The tack you take depends on which perspective works best, and the way you discover that is by doing your research and testing various approaches.
By now you probably have some ideas on what would make a good story or good approach to writing your own family biography or some unique and fascinating aspect of it. All you need is the spirit and spade to dig a little deeper and contemplate a little bit more, then dig a little deeper to chase those previously loose ends as far as they take you. If you have to fill in the gaps, the gaps might be a little narrower as the result of your research efforts. And remember, history doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a world war to be interesting. Big heroes exist in small places doing seemingly small things. You writing is the magnifying glass.
If you find writing about your own family unappealing, there might be an alternative that will still expose you to the biographical form. As I write this piece, I’m sipping my tea from a mug with the bust of the Frankenstein monster printed on it. I wonder how he might approach writing his personal biography, as multifaceted as it must have been. What suggestions would you offer him? You might even help him write the first chapter.
I’m not going to suggest any particular structure you might take to write your own family history. The structure likely will be driven by the nature of your family history and your unique sources and resources. In ?;AFFTON: Time Upon a Once, to which you can link from my homepage, I narrowed in on a time and place—my childhood years in St. Louis before my parents moved back to the Iowa hometown. In chapters I focused on various aspects of my childhood and experiences with no particular effort to write a chronological biography. Instead I focused on my most vivid childhood memories and the result was an emotional revisit to a special past.
Perhaps an explanation is in order. I chose the Glenn Miller story because he was my hero back in the day when I played trombone in school. Only many years later, a very enterprising writer for “The Wall Street Journal” researched the facts of how this world-renowned bandleader met his end. Flying back from the Continent in a small craft, his pilot flew low and close to the choppy water of the English Channel. Allied bombers coming back from a mission on the Continent followed the usual procedure and dumped their remaining ordinance in the Channel before landing on the English coast. Mr. Miller became an unwitting victim of those he worked so hard to entertain.
To find and make your family history more interesting, you need to fly a little closer to the choppy water.