Writing Life Stories

What more precious gift to relatives and future generations than to write a family history or memoir? Do it now, before stories and insights are lost to dementia and coffins.

But how? HEAR TIPS IN COMING AUTHOR TALKS

  • EVERTON HILLS, Brisbane 21 September 7–8.30pm  Between the Lines Book Club – Hills Church 79 Queens Rd Everton Hills All welcome.
  • TOOWONG Library, Friday 22 September 10–11 am. Bookings: 3403 2590
  • CORINDA Library, Tuesday 26 September 10.30–11.30. Bookings: 3407 7701.

Consider: for whom do you write?

  • Will you circulate amongst family some copies produced at the local print shop?
  • Or might your stories resonate with Everyman and Everywoman?Back_family_collage.png

That challenging option, with good marketing and distribution, can reach more readers. If so, one writes with relatives peering over the shoulder, while wondering what flak the finished book might draw. They caution: “Change the names, write a novel, and avoid offence.” Kate Grenville took this sensible option with The Secret River.

My attempts to novelise felt stilted. Why waste my treasure trove of archival letters and diminish a great story? Let the characters speak for themselves. Narrative nonfiction morphed into memoir as I discovered and interpreted stories. Accepting my role as storyteller unlocked the cage to write more freely. Others might write different books, equally valid.
(Photo shows my great-grandparents with Granddad front left, ca. 1895 in Finland.)

Spot the black sheep? 

Some families draft ancestors into pens of white and black sheep, with little variegation between. What demons drove the reprobate to that more interesting story? Perhaps perspectives were slanted against him or her? My research validated a black sheep dismissed by my family yet appreciated by those at the other end of the world–who understood what propelled his actions. Avoiding all conflict makes for dull reading and robs readers of the opportunities to learn from generational patterns.

Shame on the family!

What family tree doesn’t sprout illegitimate twigs? Recent generations shrug but Great Aunt Flossie has concealed scandals with hushed euphemisms for her 90 years. She threatens legal action if her family name is besmirched. Living relatives cannot sue on behalf of “defamed” deceased. The defamation twins are libel (written words) and slander (spoken) false or malicious statements that damage someone’s reputation. Avoid pitfalls with nonjudgmental, factual reporting.
If you choose narrative nonfiction, cover yourself with upfront disclaimers:  “This is my interpretation…” and intersperse “I imagine that…” and “perhaps…” throughout. Endnotes can delineate fact from elaboration and acknowledge sources.

Dare to share?

Fact checking early drafts might elicit useful information–or invite criticism. Steel yourself for unsolicited advice: “Don’t include aspects that dishonour ancestors…”
Memorise a short but gracious mantra:
“Thank you. I hear what you say. I’ll choose appropriate content with care and prayer.”
Clamp your mouth on time-wasting justifications.

But what is truth? 

Contradictions are inevitable when sifting truths from myths of oral history.
Relatives view my many-faceted Grandfather from varied kaleidoscope angles to mine. This is the paradox of history; the events of World War 1 written by people from Germany, France, England or Australia would differ, even contradict in parts. Then, my emigre grandfather viewed “The Hun” as foe; back home in Finland, his brother fought in the Civil War backed by German training and weapons.Edvard_soldier_crop_NH
Relatives who share letters, documents, information and memories may envisage the book they would write and recoil if your version departs from their preconceptions.
My preferred style is life writing, to look under the surface of dates, events and facts and find the persons beneath. What drove two brothers to flee their native Finland to settle at the far end of the earth? Did they struggle, away from the security of the nest? Of course.
After a decade of research, countless drafts and edits, Burn My Letters and its sequel Midnight Sun to Southern Cross face the world–to positive reviews.
Available on Amazon (hard copy and eBook). Order autographed copies with Paypal at the web store.
                       (Adapted from a blog in Christian Writers Downunder Blogspot)