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  • [Behind the Book] Wrestling a Vast Family Archive and Racial Injustice into a Memoir
This blog was featured on 03/07/2018
[Behind the Book] Wrestling a Vast Family Archive and Racial Injustice into a Memoir
Contributor
Written by
Linda Gartz
March 2018
Contributor
Written by
Linda Gartz
March 2018

After both my parents died, I discovered in their attic a vast treasure trove of family history. Opening boxes in the dim light, I found diaries and letters from the journeys my paternal grandparents made from what is now Romania to America in 1911. There were nearly 300 World War II letters, Dad’s and Mom’s numerous diaries, thirteen years of letters between my parents when Dad had a traveling job, case histories of Mom’s mentally-ill mother, letters from the “Old Country,” Mom’s diary entries begining in 1927 and continuing throughout her life, detailing the rapid racial change in our neighborhood in the 1960s.

In 1965, and again in 1968, our West Side Chicago community had erupted in riots, the latter after King’s murder, fifty years ago this April 4th. Mom recorded it all, including how she and Dad, who were devoted landlords, continued nurturing three small apartment buildings for another twenty years in what became a devastated landscape.

Finding so much family history was overwhelming, but I had to start somewhere. In 2002, I began reading the World War II letters and continued through twenty-five bankers’ boxes my brothers and I had organized.  In them I found yearbooks, degrees, photos I’d never seen, and thousands of pages of letters, diaries, and documents, each one producing a flash of insight into family conflicts and motivation.

I read more than twenty books on how to write a family history and how to approach writing a memoir. They were filled with good advice, but soon after I’d started putting pen to paper, I realized that, although I’d written and produced television documentaries, this type of writing was very different, and I wasn’t good at it. I signed up for writing classes, attended workshops, and joined a writing group to get my attempts critiqued by other writers. As the years rolled by, I read scores of memoirs, the best of which I underlined, made notes about, and read again and again, analyzing how the writers had accomplished such insight and emotional clarity.

I felt compelled to write my family’s story, but it all seemed so fascinating; so many challenges and heartaches, that spoke of universal truths. Which part should be included, and how could I keep track of all the details?

I created spreadsheets for the letters and diaries, adding entry dates with brief snippets to remind me where to find a quote or scene I might use in the book. The more I learned, the more I wanted to include all the intriguing nuggets and psychology of family members, which explained to me the conflicts that had emerged over time.

I wrote and wrote, but despaired of ever finding my way. “What is this story really about?” I kept asking myself, and ended up with long lists. Too much. In 2012, after writing tens of thousands of words, I joined NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to get a story down start to finish. On November 30th, I had 135,000 words, far longer than any readable memoir should be.

Fresh eyes were needed to tell me what didn’t fit. A mentor I hired from Creative Nonfiction (this magazine also offers classes in addition to mentoring options) read the manuscript and said, “The racial change in your Chicago community and your family’s continued work there is the most relevant to outside readers. It’s a topic that has a chance at being published.”

The next several years were spent cutting, honing, rewriting, and pitching my idea to agents. Most liked the story, but “How many twitter followers do you have?” was their most pressing question. I needed a different kind of publisher, which I found in She Writes Press.

I know that for many, if not most, people who write memoir, there exists some pressing inner need to put their story to paper. I had two reasons, the first of which had to do with my parents’ increasingly fractured marriage. When I was a teen, my parents were decidedly miserable together, my mother screaming bitter words, Dad retreating, their unhappiness leaving me in tears. I wanted to scour the letters and diaries to try to figure out what had caused my parents’ marriage to unravel.

I discovered that from the beginning of their relationship, my mother had made regular diary entries of falling in love with my dad. After a night of dancing at a big-band party, she wrote, “He’s the first man I think I’d like to marry: intelligent, fun, and we have no end of things to talk about.”

After their first date, Mom wrote, “There’s no doubt about it. I’m in love with the guy!” Wow! She continued to write with increasing joy and innocent passion through their months of dating, until it was clear they’d marry. She then became overwhelmed with planning the wedding, working full time as an executive secretary, and dealing with her mother’s descent into madness. I searched for, and believe I’ve found, what had happened over the years to their glorious love.

But there was another reason I wanted to write a memoir, and for that I needed additional research beyond the family archives. What had caused our community to fracture, right alongside my parents’ marriage? After the first black family moved onto our block in 1963, whites fled by the thousands, but we stayed. Even after two riots, my parents continued to care for their buildings and tenants as devoted landlords for nearly two more decades in what became a devastated landscape.

Why did whites flee? Was it just racism–or something more? I read as much as I could about racially changing neighborhoods and discovered an underlying culprit were the racist mortgage policies, promulgated by the federal government, that refused mortgages or housing loans to anyone in a community with even one black resident. These policies stayed in existence from 1933 to 1968 when the Fair Housing Law was passed. Still, even today, recent investigative reporting shows that forms of redlining still exist.

But it took me years to discover that these two threads, the unraveling of both my parents’ marriage and the unraveling of our neighborhood were at the crux of my story. The result is Redlined, A Memoir of Race, Change and Fractured Community in 1960s Chicago, which will be published April 3rd. How did I get from start to finish? I read primary documents, organized my research, read all I could about writing memoir and family history, and turned to others for help. I wrote, rewrote, and rethought my story. Above all, I didn’t give up. 

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