You are failing at recording your family history because you need to learn how to IGNORE story crafting practices.
That’s right. I said it. Ignore the art of crafting a story and you will free yourself to capture and preserve your family history.
Story Crafting Techniques Thwart Capturing Family History
Many educators and writing instructors say that good stories need to have a compelling conflict and a satisfying resolution. In the book, “Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction,” the principles of a good story are expressed in this way:
- A character wants something,
- The character struggles to overcome barriers that prevent achieving their desire
- The character moves through a series of actions to overcome the barriers.
These elements may appear in a page-turning story, but these techniques prevent you from capturing and preserving family history when you first begin the journey.
Family History is Made Up of Moments
By focusing on the wrong things, many people think their lives have no meaningful and amazing stories. They can not be further from the truth.
My grandmother worked for a company as a widow. She also happened to adore the actor Tom Selleck from Magnum P.I. fame. Whenever she went on break, she would tell her co-workers to ‘let me know if my boyfriend Tom Selleck calls.”
One day, while on break, her co-workers played a prank on her. Over the office speakers, Grannie heard, “Louise Brown. Paging Louise Brown. Your boyfriend Tom Selleck is on the phone.”
Apparently, Grannie went running back to catch her boyfriend’s call!
It wasn’t really Tom, but she had fun as her office mates teased her lovingly. I don’t remember how she wound up with this life-sized cut out of Tom, but I do still love this little story to this day.
Is this a good story?
According to Story Craft, it’s not.
It’s stretching the limits of logic to say Grannie believed she would receive a call from Tom Selleck.
In this story, the only obstacle she faced was ‘racing’ to catch the imaginary phone call.
In short, the story fails in the eyes of master storytellers, but it wins in the eyes of her granddaughter and other descendants.
Story Failure or Family History Treasure?
My husband’s grandfather Richard Kevern became a surrogate grandfather to me. Despite the gruff exterior, Grandpa Grumpy was as soft as a marshmallow on the inside. His crusty facade faded as he shared stories of his simple carpentry life and his quirky views on life and religion.
After my eldest daughter was born, he insisted that her name must be said with the word “The” before it. His deep, rattly voice pronounced the with the ‘e’ having an ‘uh’ sound. I loved his insistence that she was more than just her name by adding the little extra word. His endearment was a far better pet name than ‘pumpkin’ or ‘sweety pie’.
While visiting his home without my husband, this thin, aging old man didn’t look strong enough to lift his great-grandchild, but lift her he did! That afternoon, a migraine prevented me from caring for my daughter. She was a toddler in their home full of many breakables.
Grandpa Grumpy told me to lay down for a nap and he would take care of “The Granddaughter.”
He picked up my hefty nine-month-old, took her outside, down four cement steps, strapped her squirmy body into an umbrella stroller, and they were off. Together they cruised the neighborhood as Grandpa showed off his darling granddaughter to neighbors and passersby.
Is this story well crafted?
Did the main character have a problem?
Yes. Grandpa Grumpy had an ill granddaughter-in-law and a squirmy great-granddaughter who needed to be entertained.
Did he have obstacles to overcome?
Sure. My daughter’s size, her fighting to get into the stroller and his frail but strong body.
Does it measure up?
The story doesn’t tell you how Grandpa Grumpy overcome his obstacles, only that he did. You also know a little about his love for his great-granddaughter.
In terms of a well-crafted story, it doesn’t measure up. In the matters of the heart, this little moment means the world to me.
Crafting a Story From Memories
Grandpa died recently, and I miss him like crazy. Thankfully, his daughter is still around to tell me stories of him. We have turned an interview she did with him before his death into a video. The stories he shared were from his time on a destroyer escort ship during World War II.
While researching the ship’s history, there are few extraordinary war stories as the ship stayed far from the fighting action. The USS Stewart did participate in escorting Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Casablanca, but Grandpa didn’t interact with him.
In short, his service was pretty ordinary. But with his story recorded and some images from those days, the video is a peek into the life of a man that means so much to his daughter and a grandchild by marriage.
Record The Stories of Life’s Little Moments
Take time to record the little moments, like the ones above, of yourself, your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. Everyone is important to someone else. Often the ordinary lives of normal individuals are treasures worth more than gold.
Your family tree likely contains a bevy of average people. They were bookkeepers, railroaders, milkmen, auto mechanics, homemakers, educators, and farmers. As you work to uncover their stories, you will curate stories worth sharing.
The stories you preserve will be worth more to your family than an autographed copy of J. K. Rowling’s first edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Once you have curated a treasure trove of memories, then you can apply story crafting techniques if you desire. However, sometimes the stockpile of stories is a treasure in itself.
If you still don’t believe me, check out my personal memoir entitled “From Metal to Rhinestones: A Quest for the Crown.” It’s not only the story of my teenage beauty pageant participation but records a portion of the lives of my parents who are now deceased.
I never won the title of Miss USA or Miss America, but my children and husband are so pleased that I took the time to retell the story. And you know who else is thrilled with my memoir? My mother-in-law!
How many people could say that?