Ever since I was a boy I was surrounded by family story prompts in the form of artwork, paintings, photos, and books. There was an ever present simmering interest in my heritage that became a rolling boil 7 years ago. In the late summer of 2007 I re-discovered my great-great-grandfather’s journal, one that I found for the first time some two decades before. As I picked it up, time seemed to collapse and my boyhood fascination with the object seemed to have never left me. Instead of merely skimming its beautifully penned pages, this time I decided to read it and hoped it would have secrets to tell. I would not be disappointed.
For the next six years I would be transported on a journey. One that at times felt beyond my control. I was utterly consumed by it—I knew beyond all logic that I had to do something with my ancestors’ journal. This willful feeling ebbed at times, but never fully left me. The Little Engine That Could, whispering “I think I can, I think I can” gently in my ear all the while.
As with any good story my road to publishing was far from easy and it wasn’t meant to be. The road, while long and steep, was there to mold me and offer me a different view. Upon reflection it is clear that my path to get my ancestor’s story told was not solely about him. The creative spark ignited in me was for a grander purpose—to tell a different story about myself. One of creative confidence, literary insight and linguistic prowess.
We all have stories to tell, we simply need to be bold enough to find out why.
The following observations on telling our family stories are broad in nature and are all ones that have served me well as I have developed my literary voice. While I know that you need to sweat the small details, what matters most to me is telling a great tale.
The story must be personally resonant.
The story must be meaningful to you first and foremost. If you are not moved by it, do not proceed, it will simply be too difficult, and the result will be lackluster. While you might be writing your family story to ultimately share with other family members, this cannot be your primary motivation. If you write for others in the hope of receiving praise for your efforts, you will never receive the level of acclaim you desire, no matter how effusive it is. The story must be meaningful to you first and foremost. If you are not moved by it, do not proceed, it will simply be too difficult, and the result will be lackluster. While you might be writing your family story to ultimately share with other family members, this cannot be your primary motivation. If you write for others in the hope of receiving praise for your efforts, you will never receive the level of acclaim you desire, no matter how effusive it is.
Start small and see where it the story takes you. It does not need to be a multi-generational epic to have impact.
It should feel original to you.
While any great story will have timeless themes, the story should still feel real to your family. What you write will inspire others to be sure, but in ways that you can never predict, nor should you try. Authenticity is key here. If you do not believe in what you are writing it will come through.
Don’t be afraid to search for and tell the truth. Family stories are often embellished over time, and the stories we choose to tell say something about us. What really happened can often times be more interesting than the stories that were handed down. If you don’t know what “really” happened, feel free to offer open-ended questions that will leave the reader thinking. Have a point-of-view.
Think about milieu.
Historical context is critically important. Your ancestors certainly did not leave their home countries on a whim. What was the social, religious, racial tenor of the time?
It should have drama.
It is easy to fall into the trap of focusing on facts and figures when it comes to family history, but that alone does not make for great storytelling. Wade into the emotions of your ancestral protagonists. If you were in their shoes, what would you have felt, what would you have done?
This is critical. The story that you will tell has waited for you to tell it—own that fact. Once you get into the story and feel the emotional power, it will take you where you need to go.
Give yourself a deadline.
The process cannot be fully open-ended. A goal is key. It could be a deadline to finish the first chapter, the first 20 pages or the first draft. If you are committed to the process, the muse will marshall the resources to assist you. Showing up matters.
Revise and edit.
Once you feel it is exactly where you want it to be, let two people whom you trust to look at it. Take a deep breath and know that the comments are there to make your work better. Their tasks are different, so chose wisely. One is looking at the story from a macro level. Is the story compelling? Does it have drama? Would someone who does not know me or my family want to read it? The other is looking at the story from a micro level. Checking grammar, spelling, syntax and sentence structure.
Enjoy the process. Let go of the fear of failure, the final product is already within you simply waiting to be expressed. Take the plunge.
Let go of the fear of failure, the final product is already within you simply waiting to be expressed. Take the plunge.
Best of Luck, Jean-François de Buren
For an article I wrote on my literary journey with my ancestor please visit: http://www.common-place.org/vol-13/no-04/tales/
The adaptation of my ancestor’s journals can be found on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Voyage-Across-Americas-Journey-Henri/dp/2940531021/
Jean-Francois de Buren. Designer, writer, storyteller, historian, and aspiring filmmaker, Jean-François de Buren has been passionate about his family history for as long as he can remember. Over the past 10 years he has actively worked on the story of his Swiss, Argentine & American roots. He is an associate director of market development for KPMG, as well as an advisory board member for the Museum of the Swiss Abroad, in Geneva. Late last year he published the adaptation of his ancestor’s journals “A Voyage Across the Americas – The Journey of Henri de Büren” which traces a two-year expedition through the New World of the 1850s. Jean-François grew up in Northern California and is the father of two amazing girls.