What John Colletta Taught Me…

by Memoir Mentor on January 16, 2010

John CollettaI attended a most interesting conference this week, the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. I enrolled in John Colletta’s course, “Producing a Quality Family History.” It was relaxing to be a student rather than a presenter for a change, and I so enjoyed learning from such a charming, capable teacher. I read Colletta’s laudable Only a Few Bones several years ago and admired his creative approach to family history. Several of my students have taken his classes in the past and raved about him, so when I saw that he was speaking in Salt Lake, I jumped at the chance to take his course.   

Like me, Colletta stresses the story aspects of family history, and his lectures focused on ways to turn biographical facts into a readable and compelling narrative. In one interesting exercise, he demonstrated how he took a brief newspaper wedding announcement and used census records, real estate records, local history resources, contemporary drawings, and a variety of maps to turn dry facts into a story that put real people into an authentic setting and historical context we could visualize. He even calculated the weather conditions on the marriage date! It was a clever teaching tool.

In another class, Colletta discussed the importance of finding a theme in the events of our ancestors’ lives and shaping our narrative around this theme. We discussed typical story themes—ambition, hardship, nonconformity, migration, sacrifice—and examined potential themes in the lives of Colletta’s ancestors.

Bones It’s important that our stories have a theme, whether we’re writing a family history or our own life story. Many personal historians merely narrate a succession of events—this happened, then this happened—without considering whether there’s a theme that ties them together. All stories have a theme and, likely, several sub-themes.  Look at the events in your life or your ancestors’ lives and try to identify trends that you can develop into a theme that shapes your narrative. If you’ve put together a life chronology, as I’ve suggested in previous posts, it’s fairly easy to scan through the events of your subject’s life to look for potential themes.

Then, of course, you have to plan how your theme will drive  and shape your story–a topic I’ll discuss in a future post.

 In the meantime, I will focus my next few postings on other valuable ideas I learned from the SLIG conference.

–Memoir Mentor

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jerry Waxler January 17, 2010 at 10:23 am

Hi Dawn,

It is so nice to come across your blog and website by googling for “memoir blog.” I love the community and pool of information available to aspiring life writers in this internet age. I started my research into life story from the point of view of memoir, and then, through an evolution came to the discussion of life stories about others, as well. I gave a workshop this year at the Association of Personal Historians conference near my home town of Philadelphia, and am offering it in expanded form as a tele-workshop through APH this spring. I see you have written a book on the subject. Perhaps we could swap reviews, or in other ways synergize our shared interest in the fascinating translation of life into story.

Best wishes,
Jerry Waxler
Memory Writers Network

2 Linda Missouri January 18, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Dawn and Classmates, I’m glad, Dawn, how you are collecting new ideas to bring back to our classroom in February. I like how you add a Kipling quote and show us a photo of you with the speaker, Colletta. Keep traveling, Dawn, but keep coming back to Southern California! See you and classmates when your class begins again in only a few weeks. Linda Missouri

3 Betty Nelson February 1, 2010 at 1:18 pm

As you and most classmates know, Dawn,the last six months have been very difficult. Since Harry passed on in November, I have lost six friends and been asked to speak at three memorials. I have found my writing has made it easier for me to cope with all this . I am looking forward to returning to your Wednesday class and hopefully pulling my memories together into a book for our family.

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