Where Do I Start?

Making the decision to start a family memoir or to compile a family history is exciting.  You remember sitting and listening with fascination to the adults in your life as they shared memories that made them laugh, sigh or sometimes caused a sad quiet to fall over the room. It was like looking through a window into a time and place so different from your own. It’s equally fascinating to revisit those stories and put them down on paper.
A window into the past
Your next thoughts may be more practical. Where do I start? Which stories should I include? How much do I need to remember about dates and details? Are there some things I should leave out? 

Not to worry; you’re hearing the editor that lives inside all of us.While he/she will serve a vital purpose at some point, in the beginning you may need to ignore that voice. The first thing to do is just to sit down and write. Write about the first thing that comes into your head. This will make you remember other accounts and people. Before you know it, you’ll be off and running with plenty of time to edit and reedit later.

As with any task, writing your family history will be easier if you break the big job down into smaller ones. Which character will you focus on first? What particular story about him/her made an impression on you? What lessons did you take away from your time with that person? When you ask these kinds of questions the story begins to tell itself.

There’s no need to get bogged down with how it should sound, either. This is another matter for rewrites. The more time you spend writing, the more comfortable you’ll become. It may be years since you sat down to write something of any length, but it will come back to you. We all know enough about sentences and paragraphs to just start writing.

Of course you want your writing to be eloquent and grammatically correct. After you’ve gathered the raw material for an account, you can be your own English teacher. If you don’t already have one, it’s a good idea to get a grammar guide book. There are several excellent ones on the market. There are even online guides if you prefer a digital environment. It will be worth your time to do some research. I’ve found The Blue Book of Grammar and Pronunciation by Jane Straus useful. It’s easy to use and has all the information you’ll need to sharpen your skills.

How exact do you have to get about dates and places? The more detail you can include the more real and immediate your account will be. Sights, sounds, dates and details allow the reader to picture him/herself in the world you’re describing. If you’re not sure about some facts and there’s someone you can ask, by all means make the time to do that. With a little practice you’ll become a skilled interviewer.

If it’s your intention to publish your material for the public, you may also have to decide whether certain things will be included in your accounts at all. Some stories may include sad or embarrassing parts. Should you write them or skip them? Will everybody be pleased if you include them? It can be a sticky subject and may require some skill to tell the truth and still respect the dignity of all involved. This is a skill that will come with experience, too. We’ll talk more about this, as well as developing your interviewing skills in a later post.

So take a breath, jump in and enjoy the ride. Happy writing!

The Road Home

When he turned eighteen on December 10, 1942, Andrew knew his draft notice would soon follow. It took seven days, arriving on December 17. His older brother Frank had already shipped out. The two brothers fought in different parts of the world, Andrew mostly in occupied Italy and Frank in Asia.  As the war raged on they never communicated directly, hearing only snippets of information about each other when letters arrived from home. 

Uncle Frank and Dad, 1946
Unlike many families, theirs did not suffer the ultimate loss. They both survived the war.  In a circumstance that seemed written for a movie, after being unsure of the other’s condition for some time, they were discharged within days of each other and arrived home on the same day.

  After returning from the war, both brothers lived with an uncle in New Haven, Connecticut. One day, to his horror, Andrew’s cousin came home from work and informed him she had volunteered him as a senior prom date for a girl who worked with her.  He was livid, telling her he had no desire to go on a blind date or, at age 23, to take anyone to her senior prom. She told him she had talked him up to Elsie, telling her young friend how nice her cousin was and that they would make a perfect couple. She prevailed, convincing him to at least meet the girl. He agreed, and to his surprise, liked her enough to take her to her senior prom. In October of 1949 they wed. I was their second child. Good thing his cousin convinced him to meet her.

Mom and Dad October, 1949

Stories with those kinds of twists, turns and what-ifs are in every family. We all know accounts of almost missed opportunities, and the consequences. We’ve heard stories about people in our families who observed or even played a part in the major events of the twentieth century. It takes a little listening and asking a few questions to flesh out the accounts, but it’s worth it. The stories you gather are priceless and part of who you are.

     Second Avenue Story Club is dedicated to the idea that you cannot make up the things that really happen to people.

     In the weeks to come we’ll open up a conversation about writing family memoirs, whether actual accounts or fictionalized, as is the case in the novel Warming Up. We’ll discuss finding these stories and we’ll talk about how to tell them. The story teller’s art is in all of us. We just have to cultivate it a bit.

     Second Avenue Story Club will also include interviews with friends who have shown a knack for telling a story, and from time to time we’ll share some of the stories we gather.

     So, think about the unbelievable accounts you’ve heard from all the amazing characters at your family gatherings. You'll be sure to think of stories that need to be told. Maybe you'll become your family's historian.

     Thanks for reading. See you again soon.