Today is Day 14 of the Family History Writing Challenge, 2018 — which means tomorrow I’ll be in the home stretch.
Yesterday I hit a brick wall in my research, so today I thought I’d take a breather and consider the process.
As I said at the start, I took the challenge because I need deadlines and structure to motivate me to write and because I’m stubborn and prideful and don’t like the public shame that would result from quitting. But those are all negatives. It occurred to me today that, in the form I chose for the challenge, I’ve been playing into my strengths as well as my weaknesses.
Posting pictures is not one of the aforementioned strengths, but placing this one here involves honesty and humor, which are. I’ll get to that later.
The stated purpose of this challenge is “to turn your ancestor’s dry documents into exciting stories.” This requires one to use the standard trappings of fiction: Vivid dialog, well-constructed scenes, dramatic tension, moving story arcs… Many people posting on the Facebook page devoted to the challenge are doing a wonderful job with all these elements and I admit to feeling a tad envious (yeah, another weakness).
My second cousin Gigi Michaels was a pro at using those devices to write about our family in the book I’ve mentioned several times in this challenge, No Place Called Home. Her family is my family, though my grandparents and the relatives my immediate family were closest to don’t feature in it. Still, you get a great sense of the milieu, Jewish Vienna. And it’s a riveting read.
Research, Research, Research–and Polemics
I incorporated the trappings of fiction into my memoir, but in that case I had the basic facts of my life down; what I wasn’t sure of, I researched, either by contacting the people involved or Googling or both (i.e., I had to use Google to find many of those people).
Here, I don’t feel I have enough facts to work with. That’s okay. I really like the research. I prefer when I can do it in English, since I don’t understand German. And I prefer when I don’t have to accompany it with semi-gratuitous pictures (as opposed to useful details of documents). I wasted a lot of time doing that today, finally coming up today with illustrations of the street that one of the family butcher shops was on because I couldn’t find the exact address on Google Earth.
But sharing research methodology, including various forms of procrastination, may be useful to others. And the facts of these documents often make me angry–which in turn leads me to a form of writing I like and feel comfortable with: polemic. A couple of examples this go round were Poland’s New “Don’t Blame Us for the Holocaust” Law and Samuel Singer’s Military Service. The challenge may be half over, but my supply of righteous anger is in no danger of running out.
Lyndall Nairn says
Edie, Have you read “The Hare with Amber Eyes” by Edmund de Waal? He writes about his family history research in a similar way to yours. Some of his book is set in Vienna, too.
Edie Jarolim says
I have indeed read the book. If only my research resulting in something similar…but, hey, one can hope. Thanks for the comparison — and for coming by to comment.
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