Catch & Release, Word Fishing: Writing Challenge
“Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
If fishing is a metaphor for writing, the title is the bait. I often start with the title. It’s setting the hook, attracting the reader, but it has another purpose. It sets the scope and determines what it is I am hoping to write about. I know many people don’t select a title until they are done. With Lulu’s Diary I typically read over the transcription, picked the time frame and then the title from something in the entry. Do what works for you. Working with a title prevents me from getting lost. Stay along the stream, Kelly: you can go upstream or downstream. You can go for a swim or dry off on the bank. The title helps me to focus.
I was reflecting on my writing process and it brought to mind the many excellent English teachers I have had. Collectively they were a very demanding lot. Not a slouch or easy teacher in the bunch. From my 4th grade teacher Miss Buckley where our text was “Laugh and Learn Grammar” to the dreaded diagramming sentences at the black board with Mr. Tolland. Mrs. Larm in 9th grade would stand in front of the class, feet planted in a wide stance, while gazing out the windows at the San Francisco Bay, “It’s lovely isn’t it?” she’d ask then answer, “Even though I know the stinky Emeryville mudflats are there at mid horizon, I don’t have to focus on them.” It was she that taught me to love Shakespeare and how to concentrate on what is important. To Mr. Hewes who lived in Bolinas and knew Janis Joplin. He had us select quotes from everything we read and write them on index cards. He created in me, a life-long quote collector. And finally Mr. Monsees whose red pencil could bring a student to tears, but thanks to my previous teachers, I was not one of them. Each contributed to my writing, so here is a much belated “thank you” to my writing teachers.
Writing is not about perfection, although for many years I thought it was. Perfection is a writing killer. It is the enemy of all writers. It’s what keeps a page blank. Forget about perfection and practice perseverance. Fish with words. Stop trying. Cast the line, reel it in, repeat…Fisherman’s luck is about rhythm, intuition and putting yourself out there. You don’t catch anything without trying. A fisherman has to be willing to come back empty handed. A writer must write even if it comes to naught. The effort is never wasted.
If you are a genealogist or family historian who has not written a story or narrative—I am talking to you. You can do this. What you will need:
- You must have something to say–if you draw a blank you aren’t ready to write
- You must know what that is–and sometimes it’s by writing you can figure that out
- What you say should evoke emotion–make the reader care
- It must have energy and authenticity
- Be realistic. If you want to set yourself up for failure, then set out to catch a dozen fish in two hours.
- Writing isn’t talking. The fewer words we use the more power the remaining ones have.
- You must have something to say. If you have an ancestor you want to write about–you need to know your subject. You need to place them in time and space. Give them a context. Were they the eldest child? The youngest? Only? Was their mother 14 or 44 when they were born? The key to being able to write about someone is finding out everything you can and carefully analyzing what you can find. If you can’t find anything much about the individual then maybe the story should be about someone else in the family. If your great great grannie was the daughter, sister, mother of someone with more history or information maybe you can write about them in the context of someone for which more is known. If it is someone close to you like a parent or grandparent maybe you know too much about them—in that case focus on some part of their life that interests you. If your grandfather was a blacksmith—maybe learn all you can about what that meant in the proper time frame. What sorts of things might he have been called on to do? If you write about what matters to you—you are more likely to write something that matters to others.
- You must know what that is. If you don’t know what you want to say just start writing and keep writing until a theme emerges. Write everything you can about the person. If you knew them describe what you remember. What the wore, how they combed their hair, knitted their brow, tapped their fingers—what did “you” notice or remember about them? Why did you loathe them, love them, or listen to them? Why did you care? Why will the reader care? Maybe they weren’t a particularly interesting person but they lived through something historical. A war, a tragedy, a victory, a celebration. As you research someone pay attention to what was going on around them.
- What you say should evoke emotion–make the reader care Are your ancestors flat? Do their narratives read like a grocery list? Aunt Mabel was born 20th of March 1906, blah, blah blah. Aunt Mabel was born the first day of Spring in 1906, but you would never have guessed it from the 3 feet of deposited snow that fell in the several hours her mother had been in labor… Great grandfather was married blah blah blah. John Lewis Henager, my great grandfather, had waited ten years to marry my great grandmother. He was 26 and she a few months shy of her fifteenth birthday… Everyone’s life has stories in it. You need to find them, and make them real.
- It must have energy and authenticity. A story has energy if you want to turn the page to see what happened. Authenticity means it reads true—that the author gains our trust and we are willing to follow along. Energy can come from struggle, desire, humor, passion, curiosity, any human emotion. It can be subtle or intense—but a story without energy will fall flat and the we will lose interest—both in the writing of it—or anyone reading it.
- Be realistic. Let’s face it, most people aren’t going to read what we write. That’s okay, it takes the pressure off. So if our audience is small then we can adjust our aspirations to something doable. If you have spent a portion of your life building your family tree that’s great. But if you can’t tell me any interesting stories about your ancestors you need to take a deeper dive into the tree of life. Write about what you love and how that might connect with your ancestors. Do you love to cook, travel, sing, sew, paint, or write? Where did that come from? Can you use that love to illuminate your writing about an ancestor?
- Writing isn’t talking. Some of us get too chatty when we write. In the draft phase write to you heart’s content. Be superfluous. Say the same thing 3 ways. Write out of sequence—you can fix that later. Many times a story is more interesting when told out of sequence. Keep the reader guessing why the subject ended up here. A story does not have to start with their birth. Maybe start with the dying and have your subject reveal stories from their past. Maybe they took a story to their grave and at the funeral someone told it. Be creative, have fun. The beauty of writing is we get to edit it. We get to mix up the order and remove anything that did not work. Editing is your chance to throw back the fingerlings and only take home the trophy catch. Edit with a passion. If a sentence has 3 clauses and 17 words can you say it better in 7? Can a different word choice make a difference? Be ruthless. You can always put it back. And finally read it out loud. Not out loud in your head, but literally out loud.
Writing with Power by Peter Elbow 1998
You Can Write Your Family History by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack 2003
Bringing Your Family to Life through social history by Katherine Scott Sturdevant 2000
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