FAMILY HISTORY WRITING Assignment #1: Pick a Heirloom

This is a very focused writing assignment but be forewarned it can lead to more than you expect. You will need to pick an item. It can be something of your own or something passed down through the family.

INGREDIENTS:
  • an item to write about (more on picking an item below)
  • an interest in the item
  • something you “want” to tell the story of, or are willing to find out more about
  • a camera or phone
  • a medium for writing
THE PROCESS
  1. Wander around your house looking at objects
  2. Jot down possibilities
  3. Decide whether this is something you would like to tell your heirs or friends about
  4. If you don’t know much about the object are you willing to do some research?
  5. Pick something that matters to you! It can be a ticket stub, a piece of jewelry, a photograph, a medal, a coin, a watch, a painting, a vase, a document, a sculpture, or a toy. (Avoid collections for now.) Just pick one object!
  6. Take one or more photographs of the selected item
  7. Think of someone, your audience, to direct your writing toward
  8. Choose a Title. This is the MOST IMPORTANT STEP! Get this right and the rest will follow.
  9. If it isn’t evident from the photograph—describe the object and what it is
  10. Who owned the object before you? Where did they get it? Who manufactured it? Is it valuable?
  11. Tell me what it means to you. Tell me a story about where this object has traveled. Why does this object matter.
CHOOSING THE TITLE

I can not over stress how very important this is. The title determines the direction you will go with your writing. Whether it will be worthy of keeping or be destined for the circular file. You will be the judge and you are your own worst friend. So let us say you have selected a baseball that was caught by your father at the 1962 World series game between the NY Yankees and the San Francisco Giants (I am making this up). So brainstorm possible titles.

  • Dad’s Baseball
  • Broken Glass
  • Broken Glass: Dad’s prized baseball
  • The Giants Lost: The day Dad caught the ball
  • 1962 World Series: It’s only a Baseball
  • Home Run: The 1962 World Series

The way you title the story will determine the story you tell. Every object has many stories—setting the Title sets the stage.

THE BODY

It does not matter whether you have two paragraphs or several pages. Just get as much detail as you can down. If you simply cannot bring yourself to write, speak your answers into your phone and let it do the typing. If the object belonged to a relative before you, consider including their photo and something of interest about them. PLEASE DO NOT TELL THEIR LIFE STORY. The objective is to learn to write about something, make it interesting enough that upon reading your story the item will not be discarded. MAKE PEOPLE CARE. Once you have some writing and a photo or two, if you haven’t already, type into a word processing program or blog post. Play around with the order of your descriptions. Do you want to lead with the object itself, or do you tell the story of how it came to you. Do you tell the circumstances or its history first or last. These are editorial decisions for you the writer to make. The key is to get the information down then play with the sentences or thoughts.

Possible opening sentences for our baseball story:

  • The shattered glass was the least of it. I had “borrowed” my dad’s prize baseball and “accidently” sent it through Mrs. Wilson’s front window.
  • Dad loved his beloved SF Giants. During baseball season no matter where he was he listened to them on the radio.
  • The mantel above the fireplace held my Dad’s prize possession, a baseball from the 1962 World’s Series.
  • “I hate you,” yelled my little sister as she grabbed the baseball out of my hand.
  • The only thing my Dad and I had in common was baseball.

The title is the hook but you can set it will a strong opening line. Good stories often start with a dilemma, some tension or a mystery. A good story has emotion. It can be happy, sad, mad or glad—a good story makes you feel. It isn’t the heirloom that matters—it is the story or emotion it evokes in us.

EDITING

Once you have your story set down and have played with the ordering of your thoughts and sentences. Many beginning writers try to edit BEFORE they even get the story to paper. Write with reckless abandon. Wait until editing to be RUTHLESS. How many words can you eliminate and still get your point across? What is superfluous and unnecessary for the story you have written. If you take it out will the story flow better—can you use it for its own story? Tighten up your writing. Get rid of those qualifiers “I think, I believe, she may, etc.” Speak with authority. “I could see the fumes escaping his ears as he walked into my room.” “Dad’s enthusiasm was infectious.” “I could not even utter, ‘I am sorry.'” Yes you are telling a story about an object—but your story is telling me more.

FINISHING

No piece of writing is ever done. But it helps to give it an end. If you completed this assignment and have written something about an Heirloom, print it out and if the heirloom is stored put it with the object. If it is displayed put the story with your estate papers. If you only write one story, or many this is a gift. An object with a story or provenance is worth ten times an object without it.

Kelly Wheaton Copyright 2021. All RIghts Reserved

4 Comments on “FAMILY HISTORY WRITING Assignment #1: Pick a Heirloom”

  1. Do you want to see the story or is it personal to keep as most items in my house have a story to them and some I use every day.

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