I had lunch with a group of friends last week. During our conversation, we began reminiscing about where we were on September 11 when we heard that terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers. Because that event occurred only a few years ago, everyone talked at length about how they felt at the time. My son had called me early that morning and merely said, “Turn on the television. Something horrible has happened.” I remember sitting there alone by the TV, dressed in my robe, my heart pounding with anxiety, my mind reeling with thoughts of what was yet to come. Suddenly, my complacency about our relative safety as a country was ripped away. Anything seemed possible. My predominant thought was that we would be living with the consequences of this event for years to come. Anxiety gradually morphed into a feeling of loss and depression that settled over me like a heavy blanket, the way I’ve felt when a loved one dies. For several days I felt as if I was moving in slow motion, my senses dampened like I was in a fog of sorts.
I suspect that one day my descendants may be interested in knowing what it was like to experience the events of 9/11—not just that I lived at that time, but how that event affected me. Too many people write lifeless life stories because they describe only the events of their lives—this happened, then this happened—but don’t explain what those events meant to them and how they may have been changed by them.
It’s your reactions that communicate the story of who you are. I know my father built torpedoes during World War II and that once he witnessed a fellow sailor get blown up on the job in a horrible accident. I can guess how my father felt at the time, but I’d love to know what thoughts went through his mind and how it affected his future involvement with that project. Just knowing the facts of someone’s life doesn’t help us know who he or she was.
This principle is important to remember when writing family histories. If you’re writing about ancestors who are no longer alive, try putting yourself in their shoes and imagine how they felt about the experiences that happened to them. Include those feelings in your story, informing your readers, of course, that you’re merely speculating. Too many family histories make their subjects seem like stick figures who are no more than mere names on the page.
Likewise, if you’re interviewing people for a family history, be sure to ask them how they felt about the various experiences they’re describing. Ask questions like, “So how did you feel when that happened?” or “In what way do you think that event changed you?” Such questions will invite readers into the lives of your subjects and create a more personal and interesting story than you may write otherwise.