In 2003, the University of Nebraska Press published my book, Turning Bones, as part of their nonfiction series, American Lives. The book was a blend of fact and fiction. I used information gathered about paternal ancestors I never knew to invent them on the page and to find the intersections between them and me. Part memoir and part novel, the book straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction.
This was a book born of necessity. Because I have no children, I am the last Martin from our particular branch of this family tree. Because my ancestors kept little in the form of written or visual evidence, and because my father talked very little about the family, I found myself in a position of needing to know the people whose ancestry will end with me. I couldn’t bear the thought of never knowing them, nor could I bring myself to think of them simply disappearing from this Earth. So I set out to see what I could learn about them and also what I could reasonably imagine.
Here are five things I learned about writing family history:
- Our ancestors never die. Visit enough cemeteries, poke around in enough courthouse documents, talk to enough people, register for enough genealogy web boards, and you will find out things about your ancestors that you never knew. My great-great-grandfather, for example, married a much younger woman after my great-great-grandmother died, and ended up having four children with her. I lived in the same town with the daughter of one of those children and went to school with her daughter, and never had the least inkling that we were related in that way. If you want to write family history, you first have to get curious.
- It’s important to find a starting point. Start with what you know. Start with indisputable facts. I began with two pages from an old family Bible that my grandmother kept. On those pages, someone had recorded births, deaths, marriages. Who was Clarissa Bell, I wondered. Looking through census records and death records, I learned that she was the mother of the woman who married my great-grandfather. Mary Ann Inyart. Clarissa, after her first husband died, married William Bell.
- Find the fact that sparks your imagination. Census records showed me that after the death of Clarissa’s first husband, Mary Ann never again lived with her mother. She lived with her grandparents instead. Why would that have been the case? I began to speculate through imagined scenes and courses of action. So much of my work involved using a fact to imagine a storyline. Of course, I made it clear that this is what I was doing. I never knew my ancestors, so I had to invent them.
- Don’t shy away from the ugliness. We’re tempted to only represent our ancestors in honorific terms. This does a disservice to them and to us. We’re all imperfect people. That’s why we know how to love one another. Dramatizing your family members’ shortcomings along with their admirable qualities will make them more real to your readers, will even invite them to empathize. When I discovered that my great-great-great-grandfather had owned a single slave in Kentucky, my first inclination was to protect him, as well as me, by not divulging that information. I didn’t want to look at my ancestor through that lens, nor did I want readers looking at me with that in their minds. Honesty, though, is crucial when writing family history. I decided to face the fact and to make the slave a crucial part of my ancestor’s story.
- Listen to the echoes. As you start to tell or imagine your family members’ stories, listen to the invitations to examine your own life. When I wrote Turning Bones, I first thought I was chasing my ancestors. As that process went on, it became clear that I was actually chasing myself, and part of that self was the part that felt guilty about forsaking my family’s farming heritage for a life as a teacher and a writer, not to mention the guilt I felt over being the end of that line of the family. I realized that the stories I created for my ancestors were actually means of thinking more about the person I was and am. In re-creating my family members, I was re-creating myself.
Writing is a means of thinking with language. Whether we’re writing fiction or memoir, or both, we do so to better know others, ourselves, and our places in the world. I spent twelve years gathering the facts that I’d one day use in Turning Bones. I spent my entire life making the act of imagination relevant to what I needed to know about myself. When you write family history, if you do it with all honesty, you’ll find yourself in your ancestors and their stories. You’ll find lives contained within lives. You’ll find that no one ever really leaves this Earth. The words you put on the page will be eternal proof.