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. [click to continue…]


Remain Open to “Happy Surprises”

by Memoir Mentor on July 31, 2012

Sometimes you make a mistake that throws you off your original, well-conceived plan and leads you to something so unexpected and lovely, it becomes what my friend called “a happy surprise.” We were in Basel, Switzerland, our last day in that beautiful city before we were to board our ship to sail down the Rhine River to Amsterdam. It had been one of those perfect days, the weather absolutely splendid, and we had filled the time with as many activities as possible, including a long, heart-pounding hike up a narrow winding staircase to the top of the Münster, Basel’s landmark cathedral. Our guidebook had told us we’d find the best view of the city there…and we did. What’s more, the little staircase adventure afforded us a back-patting opportunity. The old folks still have it!

Now it was nearing late afternoon, and we still wanted to squeeze every ounce out of our time in Basel. One of our friends suggested we take the tram to the Kuntzmuseum, where there was a traveling Renoir exhibition. Our guidebook instructed us to take the #2 tram to the museum, so we set out, not entirely sure where to get off, but calm in the belief that we had plenty of time to get there by five, when the museum offers free admission for the last hour before closing.

[click to continue…]


Following in Frederick’s Footsteps

by Memoir Mentor on July 1, 2012

From time to time, I’ve mentioned my efforts to chronicle the story of my father’s family, the Parretts, who were the Parrotts prior to 1814.  I’ve worked on the project for many years, ignoring the advice I give my students about steering clear of large, multi-generation projects. I’ve kept plugging along, pushing through the frustrations and distractions that continually make me wonder whether I’ll ever publish my Parrett family history.

The Parretts have an interesting story, one that has not been told the way I’m telling it. That’s what keeps me going…that, and the worry that if I don’t tell the story, who will?

The Rhine of long ago

The story of my father’s family begins seven generations ago with an eighteenth century German immigrant named Frederick Parrott, who was likely Friedrich Parette or Paret in his youth. Frederick left the Rhineland for America during the mass exodus in the 1830s and eventually made a prosperous life for himself in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Frederick’s story makes a good beginning for a larger story that follows the next four generations who move ever westward until the end of America’s frontier period. I’ve had the good fortune to visit the various places where the Parrett story occurred after Frederick’s arrival in America. I’ve followed the migration path from Philadelphia, to Virginia, to Tennessee, to Ohio, and finally to Iowa, where my story ends. It was an exhilarating experience traveling America’s rural back roads in a rental car, a trip I did completely on my own—hence, the exhilaration.

Since then, I’ve had this wild dream of visiting the land of Frederick’s origins—the German Rhineland—and tracing his route down the Rhine River from Switzerland to The Netherlands, where he joined the masses of German emigrants heading for America. How fun would that be? Educational, too. Could I write it off as a business deduction? Hmmm.

Picture postcard perfect!

Dreams do come true now and then. This week my husband and I are boarding a plane for Basel, Switzerland, where Frederick likely began his trip down the Rhine. By next weekend, we will head to Basel’s vast harbor on the Rhine and board the Embla, one of Viking River Cruises’ new “longships” (advertised in “Masterpiece Theatre” commercials by a man who sounds like he’s right out of Downton Abbey). For the next eight days, we’ll sail down the Rhine, following Frederick’s path to Rotterdam. It’s ridiculous to think anything about my journey will remotely mirror my seventh great-grandfather’s experience. No doubt, he bartered all he had for a chance at a better life in America. He may have financed the journey by binding himself as a servant to a Pennsylvania benefactor after he arrived.

No, I won’t exactly be “walking in Frederick’s shoes.” (Stop your smirking!) Even if I did find a leaky, creaky old vessel and crowd into its bowels with hundreds of smelly fellow-travelers, the sights along the riverbanks have been destroyed and rebuilt countless times since Frederick made that journey nearly 300 years ago. A storyteller needs a good imagination. It’s something I work at. So, as I sail down the Rhine in my luxury stateroom, in my new traveling duds, glutted with all the gourmet food I can handle, I’ll be thinking of Frederick and trying to envision his journey in my mind’s eye. After all, if I don’t do it, who will?

I’ll keep you posted about my journey, so stay tuned in…

View from the Munster Cathedral in Basel, Switzerland