Sunday, March 24, 2013

Develop a Family Narrative

Twenty-seven years ago – anxious to try something new, but not really ready to leave – I made the decision to try a new city, thinking at the time that I could always move back home. One of many naïve views I’ve managed to prove wrong in the last 27 years, I still find myself, on many occasions, wishing I lived near my original family. Yet I remain extremely fortunate that the bond I have with my Midwest and DC family is incredibly strong despite the distances.

An article which appeared recently in The New York Times, The Stories That Bind Us, does a terrific job of illuminating an essential contributor to that family bond and the resulting resiliency: developing a strong family narrative. Amazing is the finding that children build self-esteem and resiliency simply by understanding that they are part of something bigger than themselves. As my children study the lives of explorers, celebrities, and famous people who left important marks on our world, it is really the stories like that of their great grandfather who came over from Ireland, alone, with just the shirt on his back at 16 years-old or the great-great-great grandfather who was a drummer boy in the Civil War that stir their underlying sense of self, mold their ideas of accomplishment, and fuel their internal motivation.

They don’t have to be heroic stories: Simple stories of regular lives, describing adversity overcome or the roller coaster ride of experiences, connected by some small, thin thread to who we are today. Those are the stories that bind us together. 

No one likes a good story better than I. That must be why I enjoy my family full of story-tellers so much. I am usually in the audience, rarely the narrator. But I am so glad I sat down and documented my grandma’s story. I started it as a preservationist, but it grew into something more. Reading the NYT article gave me a sense of support, that others see the value in understanding our roots beyond knowing the branches of our family tree. The stories hanging from those branches are priceless in so many ways. 

As we chart our own journeys, we find strength in the traditions of the past. We serve the menu that has come to represent a holiday over countless years. We bake the Irish soda bread using Nana's recipe. We gather as best we can, in honor of the family gatherings we've had since there was family. We learn and gather strength from one another, across generations and across state lines. We absorb new characters into the forward-moving narrative, through friendship, marriage, birth, and adoption. And we start traditions of our own, such as our family talent show, that find a comfortable, enduring place in the narrative.

I see the importance of the narrative from a business perspective as well. As I analyze new markets in my day job, I recognize the need to understand and appreciate the business’ core. As we step, tentatively or boldly, into new markets with new products, it is important to maintain an appreciation of our roots. Those origins are at the core of our success and new opportunities will only grow from lessons we have learned and merits we have earned along the way. The message we build for the new markets must be based on the narrative we have developed in getting to where we are.

But my favorite parts of the NYT article have to do with the family narrative. When my inner child needs a boost to keep the ‘happy’ in my family, I think I’ll watch my old home movies. Overcoming the styles of the 70s is hardship enough and a recurring subject of our family narrative. What is in your narrative? And have you told it to anyone lately?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Understanding What a Book Means to its Readers

Miller Family: 1920
When you pull together a book documenting a family member’s life, it is hard to look beyond what the value of that story is within your own family. I definitely set out on my writing journey with the objective of capturing an interesting story about an amazing, beloved person so that her story would not be lost to time. The idea was to create a gift for future generations while satisfying my own desire to write.

That gift for future generations is still my overriding objective and I am happy to see it fulfilled. But what I am discovering as the story circulates is that what is important about Esther’s story to me may not be what is important to other readers. In other words, Preacher Kid has other meaning to people who never knew Esther Miller. And understanding those alternative meanings will help me market the story and share her life with a broader audience.

I had the good fortune of being invited to a book club meeting of women who read my book and wanted to discuss it with me. I knew three of the seven women at the meeting, so it was interesting to get the perspectives of some people who know me and others who do not. We had a great discussion and they gave me many good questions to ponder. I saw as the meeting unfolded that two of the underlying themes of the book really resonated with this group: Esther’s adaptability and the importance of preserving family memories.

My grandma amazed me and all of the people who understood her journey with her adaptability. I’m thrilled that I may have successfully captured it in the book. There is a distinct possibility that people confronting their own challenges and being forced to adapt in order to survive might find inspiration in Esther’s relentless adaptability. I recognize this from an adult perspective as well as a teen perspective. When I contemplate what age groups this book may target, I consistently imagine adults, but I will not overlook the teens. Even though it lacks the standard teen genre themes of today (vampires, suicide, pregnancy, etc.) it may resonate in the teen psyche from a different angle of survival.

What I am growing to appreciate is the interest people are taking in the book simply because it captures a family story. I have yet to meet someone who does not have a family member, alive or dead, whose story they would like to preserve or wish they had preserved. What is holding them back? Time, energy, life, resources. There are many reasons that make it hard to get started or to carry it through. It is a big project; there is no doubt about that. But I feel, in a way, I am a poster child (woman) for getting it done! When I look back at all of the reasons why it took me 6 years to write this little book, any one of those reasons could have been the sole reason for abandoning the project or sidelining me from even getting it started in the first place - I had very little documentation to go on, my main subject and all of her siblings had already passed away, I was raising three small children, I was trying to hold down a real job, etc. One of the most compelling moments of the book club meeting, for me, was when I pulled out the 12 pages of hand-written notes my grandma wrote to my sister in 1989. To be an example of having taken her story from those twelve pages to the book in my lap was rather powerful.

When I approached my local library with the offer to discuss my book as one of their programs, they were intrigued. They are considering my offer not because it might be a captivating story or that I might be an astounding author hidden in their midst, but because I was careful to stress how much I used library resources for my research! In my library pitch, I tried to put the pieces of the puzzle together to create an image that is a familiar desire for many: a non-author with a family story to tell, capitalizing on the databases in which the library invests, creating a memory out of very little, and publishing it as a book, making it available on the most widely shopped network in the land. I hope they take me up on my offer and I hope to get the same response from libraries in the Ohio towns where my grandma lived (Naples wouldn’t be bad either!). If I could present to a group of interested readers (or potential readers), and out of that group, one person commits themselves to documenting the story of an elder, I would feel as though I had really accomplished something. Preserving that story is such a great task to embrace and complete. It is a task completely void of any regrets.

If I get the library gigs, I’ll be sure to post the dates here! I’d also love to be the guest author at your book club!