Driving home from a meeting the other evening, I had a thought. It was a thought about writing and the many stories we researchers glean from our examination of our own family history.
This particular meeting I had just left was for a specialized group of members of my local genealogical society. Our purpose in meeting every month is to encourage members who wish to write about their family history.
Though the stated purpose sounds impressive, not everyone has the same end product in mind. While some do intend to write actual books, others hope to prepare manuscripts for private sharing among family members, or create a scrapbook, or organize their data to pass along to a relative willing to take up where the originator of the work left off.
Yet, despite the wide variety of hoped-for results, we all have one thing in common: a need for encouragement to Just Do It.
The writing process is very much a journey: a matter of lifting one heavy foot after another, and setting it ahead of the one still firmly planted on the ground. It’s that plodding progress that turns dreaming into doing, paragraphs into pages, and collections into chapters. None of that will happen until we Do It.
Our small group has a number of fascinating stories to tell. One woman’s Norwegian ancestor was a journalist in Bergen who became acquainted with the noted playwright, Henrik Ibsen. A second researcher, fairly new to genealogy, delved into her family’s story with gusto, following her roots to Mexico where, documented in the Spanish language, were published accounts leading her back to the seventeenth century founder of one town—then to further connections in Spain. Another member wants to share her memories of immigrant family members, including an Assyrian grandmother who suffered from post-traumatic stress as a survivor of genocide in her family’s homeland.
These are all stories that need to be told. The question is: how to do it? How to put that one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward?
It is interesting to take the broad perspective, when considering records of family histories. It seems these projects sweep over us in cycles. Depending on the economic conditions of the times, there have been eras in which no one seemed to care “about dead people”—then other periods in which genealogy seems to be a popular passion.
I remember when first learning about my father’s Polish ancestors, a fellow researcher mentioned the blank stares she received from villagers back in her family’s homeland; when it takes every waking moment just to keep body and soul together, the thought of inquiring about one’s dead relatives seems foolishly extravagant.
Here in the United States, by the end of the 1800s, we must have been doing well; several locales had “History of” volumes published with their county or city name included in the title. Likewise, a number of surname studies—at least among the families I’ve been researching—made their appearance with initial print runs in the early 1900s.
The wave seems to be coming back in again with a resurgence in interest in genealogy. And so, we find ourselves gathering in Special Interest Groups, mutually encouraging ourselves as budding writers. Yet, nineteenth century or now, the only cure to lack of accomplishment is still: Just Do It.
I didn’t think of the idea until that long drive home the other night. Being the editor of our local genealogical society’s newsletter, I found it the logical thing to suggest, especially considering our newsletter’s constant need for appropriate content. Simple: encourage our group members to start by writing something small, but worthy of publication.
The same could be applied to all of us in the blogging world: write a scene from your family history that would be of interest to a local genealogical society, then submit it for inclusion in their newsletter. Put that one writing foot in front of the other and, step by step, initiate the journey. After all, those of us who are blogging certainly must have a vested interest in having our work read by others.
Granted, our local society would be most interested in printing stories about people who lived in our county. However, not all our members are researching people who lived here, one hundred years ago. Yet, there is hardly a county or region in this country that doesn’t have a corresponding genealogical society. Someone, somewhere, would be interested in your family’s story—and would love to include it in their local newsletter. It’s just a matter of doing it: putting one word after another on paper, until the story takes shape in a way that makes sense to others.
It seems we writers are always hoping for that bright opportunity for our words to be read—yet miss the humble, plainspoken chances right under our own noses. The accountability of preparing something for publication in a local genealogical society’s newsletter or journal is a practical exercise for the craft, as well as an opportunity to remember one family’s story from local history.
I like how Carmen Nigro put it, in recapping “Twenty Reasons Why You Should Write Your Family History” for a recent New York Public Library blog post: “individual voices from the past” provide “important historical documents” through their first-person narratives. These are remembrances that we, as genealogists with the incentive to write, are well equipped to provide.