Thank you Judy Budreau for writing this wonderful post!
Recently, I taught a memoir-writing workshop at the Minnesota Genealogical Society’s family history conference. The keynote speaker was Steve Luxenberg, a Washington Post editor who wrote a memoir about his mother and her sister. The family hid the sister because of her physical and mental disabilities. After she was institutionalized, she effectively disappeared from record and memory.
Annie’s Ghosts is a remarkable book, recreating the lives of these women through investigative journalism and extensive historical research. The genealogists were all over the research that Steve Luxenberg did. But I was struck by how alive, how very real and human these women seemed to me, simply because he told their story.
That’s the deal, really. Stories make us human, in the writing and the reading, the telling and the listening. We’ve been telling each other stories from our earliest days, from the first time humans sat around a campfire together, and in the cave paintings at Lascaux and Tennessee, in the stained glass windows of churches and cathedrals, when a child sits on a grandparent’s lap. In holy texts, and in comic books, and on the best-seller table at Barnes and Noble. The method differs, but the message is the same: This is what happened and this is what I want you to know about it.
There’s solid evidence that telling our stories has very real emotional benefits. Studies at Emory University show that children who come from storytelling families, who know their connected place in the family, do better in almost all areas of life. In thirty years of teaching memoir writing, I’ve found that people who are willing to write stories from their lives are happy people. They haven’t necessarily had happy lives — indeed, they’ve often faced unimaginable challenges — but they have come to understand how they want to live their lives, and what they want to say about it. I firmly believe that it’s the process of writing our stories that gets us to this point of peace.
I was a bit nervous about teaching memoir writing to genealogists, whose research skills surpass mine when it comes to verifying who was born where and when. But I was invited to teach because too often the stories of individual humans get lost in the reams of data we collect — birth and death dates, photos, letters, official records and documents. Now we can accumulate fairly comprehensive digital diaries with Facebook and Twitter and the A7 chip in our iPhones. But data is not the same thing as story.
Stories require that one human being pauses long enough to deeply consider another human being, or herself. Stories require quiet time and quiet space, and introspection. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Crafting all of that in a one day workshop isn’t feasible, and most of us find it hard to carve time out of our busy lives, so I concentrate on getting people to begin. We do some simple writing exercises together, and I show them how to expand their stories.
The genealogists loved these exercises. And I found that genealogists are as receptive as anyone else to the idea that no one will ever tell our stories the way we can. Even with binders and boxes full of data, they were delighted to see how easy it is to sketch the essence of human character in a few lines. How easy it is to begin.
The stories within and around and behind the photos and letters and documents – and social media posts – are the stories we are here to tell: This is what it’s like to be me.
Here are two upcoming events Judy is doing!
Discussion @ MotherCare (Mount Calvary Lutheran Church), October 22, 2013, 9:30-11:30am, in Excellsior, MN
Writing Stories from Your Life, January 11, 2013, 9am-12pm, at the Blessing House, Victoria, MN
Judy Budreau is a writer, teacher, editor and researcher whose work includes 25 years of experience helping people tell their stories — thousands so far, and counting. Her writing appears in a variety of regional and national media, as well as obscure literary journals. Judy specializes in helping older adults write stories from their lives. She’s an active volunteer with the Veterans’ History Project at the Library of Congress, and with the Minnesota Literacy Council, and is a member of several professional, historical and business organizations. She lives in Excelsior, Minnesota in a house full of books, which she is happy to lend to anyone who asks. Best advice: Write Through The Middle.
- 10 ways genealogists are journalists (famtastichistory.wordpress.com)
- Start Writing Where You Live (writeraid.net)
- Announcing the Third Annual Family History Writing Challenge (eogn.com)
- Building Roots from the Ground Up: Genealogy 2.0 (23andme.com)
- ART-I-FACT: The Family Memoir Triumvirate (brevity.wordpress.com)