Why Narratives? (Part Two)

In our previous post, I introduced the concept of narrative genealogy: branching out from the names, dates, and places of typical family trees and describing the adventures and challenges of your family’s unique history. Writing genealogy in a narrative form can help overcome some of the obstacles that new researchers face, allowing them to push forward and record stories for the benefit of generations to come.

For those who think they have nothing in their lives worth writing about, I humbly suggest that you are mistaken. That which seems to us mundane may be of sparkling interest to someone four generations from now. Consider how genealogists pore over lists of personal property in old wills: what would you think of recording an inventory of your kitchen cupboards or garage? Surely nobody will care that you have two lawnmowers (one in need of a new wheel), but what if a hundred years from now, lawnmowers are considered signs of great wealth? You can’t know now what will be valued in the future. If we self-censor our stories based on false humility or short-sightedness, we may be robbing the generations to come of a window into their past.

Old Garage by Les Chatfield (CC BY 2.0)

An email I received some time ago advertising Donald Miller’s Storyline conference included this line: “The least meaningful life any of us could live is a one in which we play a dishonest role.” If we are true to ourselves and our family’s story, we need not worry about being unremarkable; to someone, perhaps decades from now, we will be worthy of note.

Sibling Rivalry, Part Three: All Grown Up

This is the last week of our sibling prompts. Today, think about your youngest sibling (or cousin). Don’t forget to apply the childhood and school years questions to today’s sibling, too!

Is your youngest sibling the baby of the family? If so, did they ever get away with anything due to their birth order? Did you and your older siblings play parent to your youngest brother or sister?

Sibs and Their Mom by Brian (CC BY 2.0)

Why Narratives? (Part One)

I think that everyone should be a genealogist. By learning about our past, we discover how and why we are the people we are today. Most of our families have some great stories to share, if only we bring them to light.

Unfortunately, many non-genealogists regard the study of family history as either boring or arcane. Except during major life events (births, funerals, etc.), my hunch is that the average person rarely stops to consider their origins. If you mention genealogy to them, their first thoughts will be of a gilt-framed family tree, filled with cramped notations of names, dates, and places stretching into centuries long past –either an heirloom that doesn’t apply to a family as unremarkable as theirs or else a monumental project that requires massive resources of time, money, and skill.

Family Pedigree Dating back to 1621 by Orin Zebest (CC BY 2.0)

We are a People of Stories 

If you think about it, television programs like Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots are interesting, not because of the facts that are discovered, but because of the stories those facts tell. We would not watch a program that simply handed over a box of files and a twelve-generation fan chart or a four-inch think scrapbook of photos and clippings – there’s nothing inherent in those documents that holds our interest or that will hold the interest of our grandchildren. That’s where Narrative Genealogy enters the scene.

Narrative Genealogy, as I define it, involves recording in physical form the story of your family, both ancestors and descendants. Names, dates, and places will necessarily be part of your text, but the primary focus is on the colorful tales of adventure, love, and life that have shaped who you are today. Include the context in which your family worked and played, weaving together personal memories with the external history of the community, state, nation, and world in which they lived. A narrative genealogy should be a compelling story that informs about the past, not simply a compilation of data that stupefies all but the most intrepid reader. Why shouldn’t we leave our descendants a family history worth televising?

Apple Day Appalachian Storytelling by vastateparkstaff (CC BY 2.0)

Research Is Hard! 

If you’ve never delved into your past before, the task of digging for your roots can be intimidating. Records are filed in remote courthouses and archives, old-style handwriting can be a challenge to interpret, and don’t even get me started on overseas resources in a language other than your own.

Narratives can simplify genealogical research by removing some of the barriers to access that keep new family historians from recording their stories. If you start by writing out your own memories—say of your hometown or of your grandparents’ house at Christmas—it becomes easier to interview living relatives and record their memories. Once you have collected some stories of extended family, you’ll likely have a set of names, approximate dates, and general locations that will inform future study.

A common frustration in reading old census records is “losing” a relative between two decennial reports. If, however, in talking with your great-aunt, you discover a cousin that lived in the same area, a second look at the census with this new information may turn up that “lost” great-great-grandfather living out his last years with extended family. Simply by recording the memories of your family, you can open up new insights into your past that would be challenging to root out through document research alone.

A brief note: This blog is not intended to teach you how to begin researching your family tree – sorry! If you stick around, though, you’re bound to pick up some research skills along the way. The best advice I can offer to a neophyte is to start with what you know and work from there. Don’t leapfrog back and try to prove that you’re descended from Meriwether Lewis or Oliver Cromwell; let your research gradually take you back from your parents and your grandparents and see where you end up.

Check out FamilySearch.org or a free library version of Ancestry to get started. Be sure to visit Cyndi’s List – the ne plus ultra of online genealogical resources – and browse around the Genealogy portal on About.com; both places should help get you on the right path to telling your family’s story.

Evidence Exhausted: Those #$@& Citations! 

Another admittedly difficult and/or tedious part of genealogy is the proper citation of the information sources that you use. Names, dates, and places are of vital importance in genealogy. Without a solid foundation of facts, genealogy quickly becomes a fiction of rumors, hearsay, lies, and wishful thinking. Some families have passed down undocumented variations of the truth over the years to the point that nobody knows what is accurate about their family.

As we’ve discussed before, the facts of names, dates, and places are the bones that give structure and support to your family history, and to be evaluated properly, those facts must be documented. Citing your sources, however, can be frustrating, whether simply remembering to do it or searching out the proper format for a particular note.

Narrative genealogy allows us to focus on the stories of our ancestors (and ourselves) in a way that is engaging and manageable, without getting bogged down by footnotes. We should document facts as we know and discover them, but I would argue that preserving our family stories in written form trumps perfect documentation. Better a story with no citations than no story at all. The stories we tell around the dinner table or at a family reunion don’t come with a list of citations, though the facts can often be checked if a diligent researcher chooses to do so.

Family #1 by Alpha (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I caution you not to use this as license to intentionally leave out source citations because you find them difficult; just don’t get hung up on searching out the perfect citation form if it’s going to keep you from writing your story. At the very least, document what you know and why, and let that be a starting point for future researchers. Grandmother didn’t include citations in her diary, but a savvy researcher can evaluate the information and draw conclusions as suggested by the stories. The critical part is to make sure the stories are available to be read!

Coming next time—your family is remarkable just the way they are! 

Share in the comments below your thoughts on Narrative Genealogy:
  • What do you think about telling the story of your family as compared to just recording facts?
  • Have you encountered a non-genealogist who has a nascent interest in family history but thinks it’s too hard to get started? Do you think that using a narrative approach would help? 
  • Do you have plans to climb your family tree this year? What style of research do you follow?

Traditions of Christmas

This is our tree this year, the first live tree we've been able to put up since Tiffany and I got married nearly a decade ago.

The ornaments displayed represent lots of stages of our life together. There are classic ones from each of our families growing up, some that we bought during our dating years, and a handful (often built from LEGO bricks) that our kids have contributed.

We have always had very few generic decorations on our tree. The items we choose to display have significance to at least one, often both of us. Even the broken ornaments tell a story: the love of children is stronger than the obsession with possessions.

What story does your Christmas tree or other holiday decoration bring to mindWould a visitor to your home learn something about your family and heritage based on the ornaments they see displayed there

The 6x6 Challenge

Over the summer, our family computer gave up the ghost. We took it to a friend for a post-mortem – as it turns out, the motherboard was fried and would be prohibitively costly to replace (it was an all-in-one unit, convenient but difficult to tinker with). He was able to extract our files from the hard drive though, which was a blessing, since our backups are not as frequent as they should be.

On that hard drive, amongst family photos and random documents, resides the majority of my digital genealogy files. We haven’t yet gotten our files back (major family issues on our friend’s part = us not pressing a relatively minor issue), and while I do have some older backups on an external hard drive, said drive has been MIA since our cross-town move back in May.

Thankfully I still have three boxes of paper files, as well as some off-site storage. I am viewing this temporary misplacement of data as an opportunity to rebuild my genealogy database from the ground up, with a particular emphasis on citing information as properly as I can muster. It’s a daunting task, though, and I will need a solid plan to maintain momentum as I go.

Sibling Rivalry, Part Two: Teaming Up

We’re on the second of three weeks to think about the siblings (or close cousins) in our lives. Last week, I asked you to focus on your oldest brother or sister and your memories of childhood with your sibling(s). Today, write about your next oldest sibling. If you’re an only child, choose a cousin or a buddy from school. I’ve only got one sibling (my younger sister), so I’ll continue writing about her.

If you come from a big family and have multiple siblings, be sure to look back at our previous post for some ideas to jog your memories of childhood for this week’s sibling. In the same way, take your sibling about whom you wrote last week and apply the questions below to them and their memories.

Zeb and Sarah in Minnesota, July 1989

Making Memories

Sometimes when I am on the hunt for a particularly elusive ancestor, I can get lost in the records for hours or days. Free record weekends at Ancestry or Fold3 prey on my time, like virtual Pied Pipers leading me down infinitely branching paths. My lunch breaks evaporate into search sessions at the library (again, free Ancestry access).

At the end of these genealogical binges, I can certainly point to progress made in my files, but I typically feel a degree of guilt for all the late nights and excessive screen time. I begin to understand the encouragement underlying Wordsworth's verse: "Up! Up! my friend and quit your books/ or surely you'll grow double"—a great line to trot out in college when you're tired of studying (not that I would know anything about that).

If we spend all our time researching the past, our descendants may have other peoples stories to read, but what about our own? Without taking the actions and adventures that compose a life worth sharing, we will have no personal narratives to write. Don't get so busy digging for your ancestors that you forget to create new experiences for your grandchildren to marvel over!

Auxier Ridge, Red River Gorge, KY

Take some time this month to intentionally make a memory that you can hand down to your grandchildren. Go on an adventure. Try something new or revisit a favorite place, but with the intention of recording your story for posterity.

When you get back, write a vignette about your experience. Be sure to get descriptive and explain how you felt. Why did you choose that particular adventure? Who were you with, or did you head out alone? Is this something you had done before and, if so, what was different about this time? Share your stories in the comments below (or link to your own blog), and be sure to save your text somewhere that you'll be able to find it again when you get ready to compile your personal narrative.

Sibling Rivalry, Part One: "Don't Touch My Stuff!"

Today’s writing prompt is the first in a three-part series about people that hold a special place in our lives: siblings.

Our typical Friday Focus prompts ask you to think about a single person in your family and to record the memories and stories associated with them. Siblings, though, present a few more challenges (in more ways than one!).

My two oldest children, July 2014