My cousin invited me to look through some old family photos she’d inherited from her grandmother, who was my aunt. It was a wonderful evening, but the true gift of it appeared at the end of the many photos we saw. I found myself picking up a portrait, roughly 8” x 10”, of a family, and I knew in an instant I was looking, for the first time, at my great-grandparents, Henry and Mary Ann Martin. I knew because I recognized the others in the portrait: my grandfather, Will, and his first wife, who died from tuberculosis, and their two children; Will’s brother Charlie and his wife and son.
These are some of the people I write about in my book, Turning Bones, a book that’s a blend of fiction and nonfiction. In that book, I use the facts that I discovered about my ancestors to imagine lives for them. In the process, I discover more about myself by the way I choose to imagine the lives of people like Will and Charlie and Henry and Mary Ann. Last night, I stared into their faces and they stared into mine, and I wondered how they’d feel about the way I represented them. Would they tell me I had everything wrong, or would they thank me for bringing them to life again on those pages?
When we write nonfiction, we have a great responsibility to those who have left us and are no longer able to speak for themselves. We have to stay true to the facts of their lives while accepting that those facts can take us only so far. Ultimately, we make choices on how to represent what it felt like to be that particular person moving through a very particular world.
My grandfather, for example, whose first wife died not long after this photo was taken, leaving him with two small children to raise. What was that like for him? What was it that brought him to marry my grandmother, the girl who’d cared for his first wife while she was dying? What was it like to be Will Martin? What can my efforts to inhabit his character tell me about my own?
The dead are always with us, even those ancestors we never knew. I look at this family in the portrait, and I know they’re mine. I know I come from their blood. I know, at least in part, that the way I move through the world, is connected to the way they chose to do the same. I want to be able to speak to them. I have questions to ask. What was it like for my great-grandfather to fight in the Civil War? What was it like for my great-grandmother to lose her father when she was a young girl, to watch her mother marry another man, to never live with her mother and her new husband, but instead to be the orphan who lived with her grandparents? I want the ancestors in this photo to break their pose, to start to move. I want to hear what their voices sounded like. I want them to turn to me and say, “Here we are. Come join us. We’ve been waiting for you to arrive.”
But, of course, I can only create what I might learn from them. I only have words to use, words and my imagination. It’s a daunting task to write about ancestors we never knew. Here’s a brief writing activity, though, to help us meet that challenge.
- Look at an old family photo of some kind and write a bit about the story it appears to tell. What do the clothes, the body postures, the facial expressions seem to suggest about these people? What am I to make, for example, of the fact that my grandfather’s first wife seems to stand at a distance from him? Write as much as you’d like about what you can assume from the details of the photo itself.
- Then write about the facts that you know to be true about these people. Maybe you’ll have to interview your parents or grandparents, or an aunt or an uncle, to see what there is to be learned. Maybe you start a free-write with the words, “Here’s what I know to be true.” Tell the family stories. Don’t be afraid of revealing secrets or shameful events. You’re trying to create the full texture of your ancestor’s lives, and you can’t hold anything back.
- Now do a free-write that begins with the words, “Here’s what I want to be true.” Let yourself create a story of your family that pleases you. Then say, “I want this to be true because. . . .” Here you’re delving into your own character and thinking about the way fact and imagination come to bear on the exploration of the self.
The objective of this exercise is to start a conversation with those who have come before you in hopes that it will tell you more about yourself. Fact and imagination blend to create something truer than fact alone can convey.