Where There’s Work, There’s Hope, or How I Spent Summer Vacation

by Memoir Mentor on August 31, 2012

I’ve been on a roll this summer–a writing roll. I’ve spent many days in the library (my most productive writing place), working like a demon to finish the first draft of the five-generation family history I’ve been writing for years. Yes, years.

It has been grueling–this summer, and the years that preceded it. I’ve ignored the advice I continually preach to my students: Don’t pick a project so large you become overwhelmed by its magnitude. In other words, don’t bite off more than you can chew.  I did just that and I’ve been chewing and chewing and chewing. Recreating the lives of five generations of ancestors who lived over a 200-year period is a foolhardy endeavor if you’re also trying to recreate the times and places in which they lived. The research alone nearly crippled me, generating three large storage boxes of material and nearly the equivalent volume in computer files.

The grueling part has been trying to pull it all together–combining the relevant history (national, local, religious, military, social, etc., etc.) with the genealogy data I collected. Because my ancestors tend to fly under the radar and never took a pencil to paper, I’ve had very basic genealogy records to reconstruct their lives.

As I said, it hasn’t been pretty. I feel comfortable enough now to confess that there were many times I’ve smelled the gut-wrenching whiff of failure. I saw myself walking away from all of it because there was no way I was going to finish.

But, in the end, I couldn’t. What would happen to all my research? I had stood in front of large audiences telling others how to write their family histories, inserting examples along the way about my own project. People left my lectures telling me that I’d convinced them they would write a family history. How could I ever face these people if I threw in the towel? Well, I couldn’t.

But, I feel confident enough now to come clean about my struggles and self-doubt because for the first time…I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. My hunkering down in the library this summer has paid dividends. I have nearly a 200-page draft of the whole enchilada.

Sure, I’ve got some tweaking to do–major stuff in some areas–but this seems like a cakewalk after all the excruciating thinking and re-writing and self-flagellation that went into the first draft.

Always the teacher, I feel a need to share a bullet list of what I’ve learned from the process in case you may find yourself in a similar situation:

  • You really don’t know what your story is going to be about until you write it–even if you’ve written a careful outline. It wasn’t until I was midway through the draft that I grasped the theme that was going to hold it all together. Outlines help, of course, and I had an outline for each chapter AND an outline for the entire book, but the process of the writing continually brought up new ideas for how to proceed.
  • Your writing will get better as you go along. You’ll get looser and more confident, which means it’s a waste of time to spend much effort polishing the earlier chapters. You’ll get new ideas along the way, so wait until you’re completely through, then go back and make the changes. For example, a few chapters into the book, I decided I wanted to put myself into the story as a first-person commentator instead of keeping it all in third person. This gave me the freedom to say things like “I’ve struggled to understand why Joseph’s family left his home in Tennessee for the Ohio wilderness.” Adding the “I” felt right, and it made my story seem more personal and readable. Also, the further I got in my draft, I realized I really liked how imagined scenes helped bring to life the people in my story. This awareness came through the process of writing. Had I spent oodles of time polishing the early chapters before proceeding further, I would have wasted a heck of a lot of time.
  • I discovered a software program called Scrivener about two-thirds of the way through the book. I wish I had known about it from the get-go. It’s a wonderful program for keeping together all the pieces of a large writing project. It requires a bit of a learning curve, but the program has a slew of video tutorials. It may not be for everyone, but I sure like it.
  • I developed a real appreciation for the people I’m writing about as I came to understand the times in which they lived. As simple and obscure as they are compared to typical subjects of biographies, my ancestors led courageous, admirable lives in difficult times. They inspire me and make me proud to be related to them. I know other descendants who read my book will feel the same way, and that’s going to make me mighty happy.
  • Most of all, I learned that if I had to do it over I would definitely choose a more manageable project!

That’s it–a confession, and a bit of advice.