Family Tree to WIP

Monday, November 11, 2013
What do you write? It’s usually the first question people ask after they establish that you’re a writer. It’s funny how non-writers want well-defined groups. In room A we have the fiction writers, the poets are in Room B, the memoir writers are on the other side of the building in Room H. But in reality there is a lot of shifting. So many of us are children’s writers/article writers/novel writers/essayists or some other mixture.

Recently, I was contacted by a cousin’s teenage daughter for help with a school assignment since I’m the “writer girl” in the family. She had to capture an oral tradition from our family (if you don’t speak teacher that means write down one of those funny family stories we tell year after year as we sit around eating apple pie after Thanksgiving dinner). Our family had a lot to choose from. We are a family of storytellers…and our family tree is populated by characters with lives with stories worth telling.

As I went through a list of stories about her parents, grandparents, and other relatives she knew well I realized that, although I remembered the stories, we were telling them less and less. So I decided to replace my ten minutes of free writing at the beginning of each writing session with a family story. I found I liked it a lot better because I felt I was accomplishing something instead of writing something that most likely would end up in the trash. And since our stories were short (the time it took to eat a piece of pie) I could often finish a story in one free writing session.

It was fun but I found a totally unexpected benefit. Although our family’s stories are mostly funny they also include many themes: devastation, pride, success, anger, love, friendship, coming of age, triumph. And in writing the stories out I felt those emotions, something I discovered could transfer to my WIP. When I wrote about my nana’s reaction to her oldest son leaving for World War II – a story I had heard told and retold countless times – I could really feel her emotions. Mid-free writing I suddenly realized that they mirrored the fear of change my WIP main character was feeling about another issue. I rewrote that scene and feel it was much richer as the experiences of my nana found their way into the scene.

So if you find yourself hitting a brick wall in your WIP or just need a prompt to loosen up your writing muscles try the family stories that your family has told but never written down. Future generations will have a record of important historical as well as family events from your relatives’ viewpoint and you may find yourself with a new source of material to mine when you need to make your characters more “real”.

Have you recorded any of your family's stories? What do emotions and events do they portray?


Rita A. said...

This is a wonderful post and something I've tried to say but perhaps not as well. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Jodi--Some marvelous memoirs (like "All Over But the Shouting") got written because their family members are great story-tellers.

Yes, there are some stories I write down, mainly because they're about people (like my birth mother) who would vanish without a trace if her story is not written down.

Thought-provoking post. Thanks.

Margo Dill said...

Jody: This is a brilliant idea. I should do this. I made a scrapbook with my grandma's photos before she died and labeled everybody but I should write the stories too. Thanks for this post!

Margo Dill said...

Jody: This is a brilliant idea. I should do this. I made a scrapbook with my grandma's photos before she died and labeled everybody but I should write the stories too. Thanks for this post!

Marcia Peterson said...

That's great that you have so many family stories to write about---I don't feel like I do. Also, what a great way to warm up your tsession too, vs. the throw-away free writing. Win-win!

LuAnn Schindler said...

Sounds like our families are like-minded! We're storytellers and have a similar ritual during family get-togethers.

Since so many of us are storytellers, we have done a great job of writing down stories and even video recording our parents and grandparents. It's a wonderful way to capture history and preserve those rich family stories!!

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