ART-I-FACT: The Family Memoir Triumvirate

October 9, 2013 § 3 Comments

9780253008596_p1_v2_s600A guest post from Rebecca McClanahan, on the occasion of her rich new memoir,  The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change:

If you take artifact and split it into three parts, you get ART, I, and FACT. I think of these as the triumvirate of family history memoir, a body of three forces that work together toward a central purpose. During the decade that I was researching and writing The Tribal Knot, these three forces collided in surprising ways.

I’ll start with FACT, an element I could not ignore, given the trunkloads of ancestral documents, ephemera, and personal effects my mother had passed on to me, some dating as far back as 1848. Here’s a partial list: Postcards, telegrams, water-stained schoolbooks, photographs, diaries, newspaper clippings, calling cards, hospital bills, tax notices, affidavits, wills, marriage announcements, death notices, farm ledgers, handmade valentines cut raggedly by a child’s hand—my great-uncle’s hand—more than a century ago. And hundreds of letters. Written in good times on store-bought stationery; in bad times on used envelopes, church bulletins, grocery receipts, wallpaper, wrapping paper, on unused bank checks or the margins of free calendars distributed from seed companies.

“What a treasure,” everyone said, “to have all this family history at your fingertips.” The daughter-in-me agreed. As did the granddaughter-in-me, and the great-niece and great-great-granddaughter. The writer-in-me was not so sure. The writer in me knew that all the stuff in the world does not a book make. I had too much–not only the artifacts themselves but also, as the process deepened, oral histories, interviews, site visits, library and other secondary sources, not to mention the ransacking of my own memory and life story. I wanted to give up, but it was too late. I’d been sucked into my ancestors’ lives, and the only way to find my way out was to write my way in–into the questions, the mysteries, in search of the hidden design, the voice, the structure, anything that might move me from mere FACT into ART.

Then, a few years into the process, something shifted. I began to feel like that magnet Eudora Welty talked about in one of her interviews. Once a writer is immersed in the work, she says, “wherever you go, you meet part of the story.” You’re “tuned in for it, and the right things are sort of magnetized.”

At some point, my center became magnetized. Turned out, it was the same center that had magnetized my writing for thirty years: my obsession with human connections, with the myriad ways lives intersect. Then, the universe cooperated with another iron filing drawn to my magnetic center, an image that grew out of an interview I conducted: the description of a “hair picture” woven from the hair of 13 members of my ancestral tribe, an artifact that, according to my informant, was an important factor in a family murder-suicide that occurred in the 1930s. How could I resist the image? It was a physical incarnation of one of the deepest themes emerging through the material: the interconnectedness of family lives. Each family member with her own strand of individuality, yet when all these strands are woven together, the design is more intricate than any individual design could be.

That was one of the ways ART collided with FACT–as image. Over the next years, other elements of art collided with the factual material–structure, characterization, timeline, and decisions about what to include and what to kill off (600 draft pages, as it turned out, which I considered a form of mercy killing for the reader.) When ART collided with FACT, a lot of surprises occurred.

But what surprised me most was how powerful the third element–the I–turned out to be. When I’d first set out, I imagined my role as fact-collector, transcriber of artifacts, amateur historian. As usual, life had other plans. With each letter I studied and artifact I touched, I inched closer into my ancestors’ lives, fitting my feet into the tracks they’d left for me. Imagining yourself into the consciousness of someone else is a form of communion, and, as it turned out, I needed this communion. I needed all the help I could get, including help from the dead. Yes, some of what I found was difficult to accept: my great-grandmother’s painful childhood, my parents’ darkest moments, and the unwelcome discovery of certain documents, like the 1920s Klan membership card. But I was also humbled by the tenacity, grit, humor, and vulnerability of my ancestors, especially those I had known in life. As a child or adolescent, it’s hard to imagine your grandmother, or great-aunt or -uncle aside from their relationship to you. You are the child and they are the old ones, simple as that. But when you inherit hundreds of documents spanning more than a century, their whole lives are spread out before you, from beginning to end. You become the old one, with knowledge that they can’t have.

That was the biggest surprise of all, the realization that because of my access to all these documents, coupled with my knowledge of how their lives played out, I knew more than my ancestors knew. They knew only their present and their past; I knew their future. I knew which marriages would last and which ones wouldn’t. I knew my grandmother was pregnant before she did. I knew that one of the uncles wasn’t telling the truth when he wrote that things weren’t “all okay,” that they were so far from okay that he would end up killing his son and himself. I could move through space and time, foretell my ancestors’ futures, yet I was helpless to intervene. I wanted to reach through time, to post a letter of my own. A letter of warning, yes: Be careful whom you love, what you say, what city you move to, where you hide the ammunition. But it would be a love letter, too, for that is finally what happened, which was the biggest surprise of all. I fell in love with these people, the living and the dead. I wanted to keep living inside their lives. I wanted the letters to keep coming.


This blog essay was adapted from a lecture delivered at the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference in May 2013. Listen to the original here: River Teeth audio podcast.

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§ 3 Responses to ART-I-FACT: The Family Memoir Triumvirate

  • lindawis says:

    So wonderful, this reminder we are attempting to make Art of the whole box of memories. My memoir students come to write family stories. My joy is the moment they discover that the story is their own.

  • Linda Gartz says:

    You are one of the few people I know about who has the same “gift” and “curse” that I have: more than a century of family letters, diaries, documents, photos– everything you describe here and even more (like my parents’ income tax from 1939 to 1994, when my Mom died). I know exactly what you mean about wanting to write them a letter because you know their future. I compare it sitting in a matinee with a bunch of kids watching Peter Pan, so engrossed they want to call out, “Look out, Peter!” when Capt. Cook lurks close behind. But the movie is shot and edited — just like my ancestors’ lives and we can only be witness to what we learn about their struggles and the outcomes — many of which I wish I could change with a simple: “Look out! Don’t do that! It’s not worth it, even though you think it is!” Fascinating to read another’s experiences so similar to mine. And yes, ten years later, I’m still working on the book I’m writing — and will also have to “kill my darlings,” at least 30,000 words! Can’t wait to read your book.

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