I completed day 13 in The Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge today. It featured a guest author, Biff Barnes of Stories To Tell. He talked about writing family history when you can’t know all the facts. My literal mind doesn’t like this, I want to know every detail and then I know that I’m getting it right. We all know that just isn’t possible. Biff shared three points from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor Richard Todd offer some useful advice in their book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Here it is:
- First, accept the fact that a good nonfiction narrative is a limited record of the characters and events it portrays. As Kidder and Todd note, “We know that as soon as writers begin to tell a story they shape experiences and that stories are always, at best, partial versions of reality.”
- Recognize the limits of the record you have available to work with. “…it makes you the one who has to explore the facts, discover what you can of the truth, and find the way to express that truth in prose.”
- The result will be similarly limited. You won’t be able to create a completely factual picture of the ancestors about whom you write. “You strive to give the reader an illusion of a real person, and you have to make sure that the illusion is faithful to the truth as you understand it.”
I’m saving this for a reality check when I get on my perfectionist path to nowhere good. Do you ever struggle with thinking you need to have more information before you can tell your family stories? How do you cope with this challenge?