Re-Constructing the Past

BricklayerThis coming week, we are going to discuss showing and telling, scene writing and dialogue and it is at this point that family history writers begin to wiggle in their chairs in discomfort, uneasy with the thought of writing a scene about their ancestors, when they have no eyewitnesses to the event.

Family historians struggle in making the jump from genealogical narrative to creative nonfiction because of scene writing. Creative nonfiction writers enlist the use of scenes comprised of action, dialogue and description to bring their story to life on the page. However, family history writers struggle with this proposition, they usually respond with, how can we write about ancestors we’ve never met? Are we not making things up? O course, we can never be sure we have re-built the event exactly to the orginal.  One of the most infamous creative nonfiction writers of our time, Lee Gutkind shared this statement in his most recent book You Can’t Make Stuff Up. I think it speaks to what we as family historians struggle with on a daily basis.

 “In creative nonfiction, the reporting may be filtered by a writer’s perception and the use of narrative, but that does not mean we are creating characters and situations- nor does it mean that we are willfully altering facts. We are recreating, as vividly as possible, in dramatic form, what we think happened. That said, it’s also our responsibility to relate the facts we know- without purposefully altering them.”

As a family history writer, it is your job to interpret the events of your ancestor’s lives, select which ideas, characters and events to


present and to leave out. As a family history writer your work can be subjective and establish a personal point of view. Much of the debate in the creative nonfiction genre is around fact-checking. We must remain true to the facts. Fact checking is not lost on family historians. We come to the table with our facts and our sources.  Our dilemma lies in re-creating or re-constructing a scene that we did not witness.

It is impossible for us to know the exact details of an event that occurred in our ancestor’s life without having witnessed it. Even if you did witness it or other relatives witnessed it, our perception is skewed. One person’s perception of an event can differ from another’s. There are many truths to a story, and many versions of the same story.  Witnesses can often see the same event in two varying ways.  So even with witness in hand we can’t know for sure what the truth is. We all witness an event through our own perceptions, bias and experiences. However, what we can’t deny are the facts.

As family historians, we can offer facts, along with historical and social history research, and interviews when available to re-construct or re-create the event. It is permit able within creative nonfiction to be creative with how you present a factual event. We are not creating facts but being creative with the facts we are given, of course all within the confines of truthfulness, accuracy and respect for the story, your ancestor and yourself.