Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Preserving a Family Oral History

This week we reach back into the archives again. The post that follows was originally published on July 9, 2014. It was written by Julie Demoff-Larson and is titled “Preserving a Family Oral History.”


My father has this knack of storytelling that I wish I had inherited. Yes, I can spin a tale on paper, but his talent resides in the oral tradition. Many holidays and late night discussions around the dining table end with Dad captivating us with stories of his youth and that of my grandfather. As an adult, it is those stories of my grandfather that peek my interest the most. I often think of how much of his story has already been lost through the version my father tells. And there certainly are many facts that I cannot relate to my children. It becomes necessary to write down as much as is remembered, and as early as possible to carry on these stories.

So, how do we preserve a family’s history without having our ancestors here to fill in the missing information that is vital to the retelling of the story? Through research?  Well, that all depends on what kind of research we are talking about. A writer can look to community archives to see how people lived during a specific era, but that doesn’t quite represent what has happened within an individual family. This reminds me of Jeanette Walls first two books. The first, The Glass Castle, is a memoir of her childhood looking back at her parent’s dysfunction and mental illness. Nothing is lost because it is her story. In her second book, Half Broke Horses, Walls labels it as a “true-life novel” based on her grandmother. Walls initially intended it to be a biography, but soon realized there were too many gaps to fill in the story. So, the question becomes is it better to write a family oral history as fiction, or maybe as a hybrid between fiction and nonfiction?

A biography can be restricting because the audience expects the reading to be based on fact, including time and setting. This is extremely hard to accomplish because it is speculative. Capturing emotion, personalities, and drama on the page requires flexibility. We all know there is some give in creative non-fiction when it comes to enhancing language to create depth, but it does not allow for grand embellishment that creates new scenarios within the story — that would be fiction.

Advice to those wanting to record the oral history of your family: write down what you know, what you can find out, and research community archives for customs and norms, and then combine with your imagination. 

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