Friday, December 10, 2010

Write Roots - Online Genealogy & Memoir Resources

Today I read that Ancestry Library Edition, the public library subscription version of by Proquest, is one of the most widely utilized electronic subscription databases for genealogy in our Silicon Valley public libraries.

With the popularity of scrap booking, Census, and family tree-maker sites and software, plus the expansion of local historical society resources and projects as Baby Boomers age, I suspect that our generation will play a major role in documenting and recording the lineage and memories of our first, second, and third-generation relatives. In doing so, we will create a tangible record of our own rites of passage, as "memoir" scribes of our generation.

In writing about memoir, especially within the constraints of history, first learning the historical record and details of one’s heritage (even when the opportunity for gathering oral histories may no longer be available), may provide a valuable breadcrumb trail through creative options of how best to organize your writing.

In my own family our cherished family oral historical beliefs were discovered to be a bit scrambled. Of course, the online heraldry sites said we come from royalty, that we were from another nationality altogether, and that we had a family crest. Well, it sounds like fun, but I think we are a lot like every other family, only special because we love each other, not because we are related to knights, kings or queens.

In reality, generations of the maternal side of my family fished along the rocky Adriatic coast, when they weren't growing grapes or making wine. Some were from generations of educated folk whose heritage was linked to regions which were home to the ancient Celts. The paternal side of my family is Northern European, and not much is known about them as borders and records changed or were lost during war times. But there was another stunning revelation.

When a distant cousin researched our family records, she found that much of what we thought we knew, which had been handed down through our family's oral and written histories, was wrong.

In trying to remember the past, our family's elderly first generation had some dates and places confused, and there was a secret first (or second wife) attached to our great grandfather, depending whose side of the family was telling the story.

Instead of clinging to what we wanted to believe about our past, we received the gift of our real heritage and history. It was wonderful and all courtesy of records which my cousin found through online record searches, a historical path of detection which you can follow yourself or with the help of a librarian and a local genealogy center.

Aside from taking you deeper into your personal or family journey, genealogy and history sites will ground you in the authentic events which shaped your historic past, the silent backdrop which sets the atmosphere and tone of your memoir.

The following works illustrate several methods of writing an historic memoir:
• Placing your family memoir within an historical perspective and framing it as an allegory of the times, offers readers a broader view of your personal story within regional or worldwide events of significance. Greg Mortenson’s books, Three Cups of Tea (2009) and Stones into Schools (2010) integrate one man’s journey from failed, scruffy mountain climber to respected international humanitarian, all within the framework of cultural and political events in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Likewise, taking a much-documented political or international event and telling the story of its personal impact on you, or the lives of a handful of people you knew well, personalizes history and brings it vividly alive for the reader. The ongoing popularity of era-based oral histories by Studs Terkel, some even contemporized in graphic novel format illustrates the multigenerational appeal of presenting real people who survived and thrived during typically summarized major local or world events, clustering a common major cultural memoir into vignettes, with one individual, one story at a time.

A more recent work, Angel Island: immigrant gateway to America, by Erika Lee and Judy Yung (2010) employs oral histories, holding-cell drawings, and government records to tell the story of Pacific immigrants who were endlessly becalmed on this San Francisco Bay gateway island while attempting to gain entry into the United States. Both Lee and Yung are descended from Angel Island detainees, which lend certain pathos to their memoir.

Contemporary biography may also highlight an era, a personal transformation, or handle difficult subjects and memories within an historic perspective. Keith Richard’s new biography, Life, Keith Richards (2010) has received positive reviews for its surprising poignancy as Richards reveals aspects of his childhood and adolescent years which are markedly different from the hard-driving, drug-saturated public persona which unfolded across the tabloids in his role as a founding member of the Rolling Stones. Transformational stories like these, framed by a specific era and its music, fashion, and world events, enrich the ability of readers to relate to the subject of the memoir. Even those readers who are unaware of Richards, per se, may relate to a story of self-annealing honesty.

Writing memoir from these perspectives closely follows aspects of Journalism, with its requirement for factual and accurate reporting of documented events. A subset of journalism which includes chronological reporting on authentic events, coupled with personal impressions and view points, has been termed, Narrative Journalism or “Creative Nonfiction.” One of my favorite introductions to this marriage of Journalism and memoir is Telling True Stories: A nonfiction writers’ guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. In this work noted nonfiction writers like Tom Wolfe, Nora Ephron, Susan Orlean and others, share their insights on the meaning and craft of narrative journalism.

To increase your breadth of historical knowledge while writing memoir, these online sites are particularly helpful:

The Ellis Island Foundation The American Memory Collection
The U.S. Census Online
• The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration U.S. Census page and related genealogy pages featuring passenger ship manifests, immigration records, and military service records, among other resources.
• LDS Family History Centers - Family Search
• University of Houston’s Digital History site
• American Cultural History: The Twentieth Century (by decade)
• Ancestry Library Edition is available for free at some local libraries and can be accessed online with your library card.

---Catherine Alexander Bright,