At this year's AWP conference in Chicago, Ellen Cassedy and Nancy K. Miller were part of a panel organized by the University of Nebraska Press on Family Stories. Kamy Wicoff was in attendance, and loved what they had to say on the subject so much (memoir writers, don't miss these wonderful posts) that she asked Ellen and Nancy to summarize their remarks in two posts for She Writes.
Today Ellen Cassedy's -- and stay tuned for Nancy K. Miller's tomorrow!
"Who Cares About Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will Care"
by Ellen Cassedy
I love books based on family stories – especially those that provide me with a perch, a home, and intimate place from which to experience a larger culture or a bygone era.
For me, the vibration between the ordinariness of everyday life and the sweep of history is not only a pleasure but also a political and a moral matter. Observing what happens from the point of view of unfamous people, we learn that human history is made not only by generals and kings but by each one of us.
That said, who cares about your family story, or mine? Here are ten ways I’ve discovered to keep readers engaged with the story that engages you.
1. Step back.
When my book first began to take shape, what was foremost in my mind were my own feelings. On my family roots trip to Lithuania, the land of my Jewish forebears, shivers went down my spine in the old Jewish cemetery, and tears overtook me in the now-empty market square.
I was writing about what I cared about. But that – simply that – was not a story, and certainly not a book.
Paradoxically, what enabled me to shape my raw experiences into a narrative was detachment.
When I stepped back, I was able to place my family story within the broader context of a nation’s encounter with its “family secrets,” its Jewish past.
My particular family story came to illuminate something larger. And that’s what made it a book.
I came to be motivated by my responsibilities to my readers – which leads to the next point.
2. Take care of the reader. A diary can help.
Put yourself in her shoes. Telling a true story, rather than inventing one, can make it harder to see what you know that your reader doesn’t.
As my journey progressed, I kept a diary, writing down everything I was seeing and learning and thinking day by day. That way, even when I knew how the story would end, I could look back and see what my readers would be wondering at any given point along the way.
3. Give the reader a home, or homes.
In the difficult moral and historical terrain into which I led my readers, I realized we needed places to catch our breath – familiar touchstones to hold onto, places to rest.
The classroom at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, with its rows of battered wooden desks, became one such place, and my kitchen table in Vilnius, with its knobby cucumbers and its loaf of black bread, became another.
These recurring images gave my narrative a rhythm, like the refrain of a song.
4. Create vivid characters.
With a first-person narrative, that means creating yourself as a character. Ellen Cassedy, the reader’s trusty guide, has to be as vivid as Uncle Will with his grizzled chin and his secret past, or Ruta, the passionate young woman driving a Holocaust exhibit around the country in her pickup truck.
5. Create vivid scenes.
Just like a work of fiction or a play, a memoir needs places where the narrative slows down and draws the reader in close.
In addition to jotting down in my diary everything I could see, hear, and smell, I took pictures with my camera.
Later, at my desk, when I was conjuring up, say, the old man who wanted to speak to a Jew before he died, I could see his green cap, his aluminum cane, and the blood-red gladioli that framed his front door.
In writing a story from life, I found I was less a builder than a sculptor, carving away everything not needed.
My side visit to Poland had to go. The amazing yoga class in Vilnius had to go. Even my discovery of my great-grandfather’s grave had to go. Deeply moving though it was, it didn’t advance what had become the real story.
7. Create suspense.
In my first draft, I revealed Uncle Will’s fearsome secret on page 3. Now I make the reader wait till page 51 for even the first clues.
8. Blend the personal and the historical.
Break up what Ursula LeGuin calls “the lumps in the oatmeal.” Instead of requiring the reader to swallow background information in big chunks, find ways to stir them in. Make them go down easy.
9. Be honest.
It’s been said that “writing begins with taking notice.” That means noticing what’s going on inside you as well as outside.
In writing my book, I trained a microscope on the minutest details of how I was began letting go of the cross-cultural hatreds I’d been taught as a child.
10. Pay attention to every word.
It goes without saying that I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. Because I cared – and I wanted my readers to care.
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Ellen Cassedy’s book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2012). Her first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ... Her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly. See all of Ellen's Tips for Writers.