On Beets, Rice, and Writing Family History

May 3, 2016 § Leave a comment


Cover-Draft-03-68-Corrected-for-DMT-16Feb2016-front-cover-JPEG-FRAMED-01Mar2016-copy-199x300Each issue of Brevity is fueled by generous volunteers and chief among them is our brilliant copy editor Sharon DeBartolo Carmack who tirelessly and cheerfully finds our mistakes and makes them right before readers have a chance to scratch their collective heads. Sharon is a writer as well, and a genealogist, so Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore recently talked with her about her newest book, Tell It Short: A Guide to Writing Your Family History in Brief.

Dinty: When I teach summer workshops for adults, I often meet folks who can’t seem to decide if they are writing memoir or family history. Do you have a simple, clear way to distinguish between these two types of writing?

Sharon: A simple, clear way to distinguish memoir from family history is the focus. Is the story mostly about the writer and the writer’s experiences? Or is it more about the writer’s family or ancestors? I’d call The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls a memoir because the primary focus is Walls’s story. Yes, it’s also about her family, but Walls’s childhood experience is the focal point.

Conversely, I’d call a book like Rebecca McClanahan’s The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change a family history memoir. The focus of the book is McClanahan’s family history. McClanahan is in the story, but her role is to act as the bridge that connects the family history.

A story strictly about family and ancestors without the author’s presence in the narrative is a family history. A classic is Gerald McFarland’s A Scattered People: An American Family Moves West. He’s narrating the story of his ancestors, but he’s not in the story.

Dinty: You are a Certified Genealogist. Some of the regular Brevity blog readers may not know what that is. Can you explain, and how does that role fit with your role as a writing coach?

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack

Sharon: A Certified Genealogist® has had her work evaluated against the set of standards for competence and ethics in the field of genealogy by demonstrating not only the ability to research and accurately document a lineage, but to also reconstruct the lives of individual ancestors. No one wants to hang the wrong ancestors on their family tree, so solid genealogical research involves much critical analysis to ensure each person’s identity from others who have the same name. Genealogists also study the community in which ancestors lived to gain a better understanding of ancestors’ lives.

As a writing coach and instructor who is also a Certified Genealogist®, I specialize in and teach both genealogists and non-genealogists how to weave the specific information about their families and ancestors in with the context of their community or social history to bring the stories to life. Quite often, our ancestors did not leave letters, diaries, or written accounts of their lives to tell us what their motives were or why they acted a particular way. Social history can fill in those gaps.

Dinty: What is the difference between writers adding in disconnected historical details and writers using relevant social history? 

Sharon: Let’s first define social history. Social histories examine the everyday lives of everyday people (the majority of our ancestors) in a community or society, unlike traditional history, which generally focuses on events set in motion by elite, wealthy, powerful, influential, famous, old, dead, white men. Social histories examine the lives of women, children, minorities, and the working class. They can often explain how these people lived day to day and why our ancestors behaved in a certain way.

For example, I discovered that my Italian great-grandfather Albino DeBartolo came to America, then went back and forth between countries two times before he brought his wife and children here. Through social histories about Italian immigrants in the early twentieth century, I learned he was a typical “bird of passage,” someone who had not intended to settle in America, but traveled here to earn money during off seasons of work in Italy. Eventually, however, he decided there were more or better opportunities here and permanently moved his whole family. I wouldn’t have understood that behavior without learning the social history.

This is what I mean by relevant social history; it’s relevant to my great-grandfather’s experience. History that wouldn’t be relevant would include famous events that had no impact on my ancestor or that did not relate to his experience. Say Albino came to America in April 1912, the month and year the Titanic sank. Unless he was on that ship or supposed to be on that ship, that event is of no relevance to my Italian great-grandfather’s life.

Dinty: I love the fact that you spend time examining the importance of food in family memoir or family history.  I think food defines our childhoods more than many are willing to admit, probably because we think of our family eating habits as “normal,” because they were normal for us.  But there is so much variation. What’s your food story?

Sharon: Food played a huge role in my childhood. Through food, I discovered I was half Italian. I wrote an essay about this called “Rectangular Pizza,” which appears in my forthcoming essay collection, Inheriting the Gordon Hips (Scattered Leaves Press). We had left New York when I was five and moved to a white-bread neighborhood in southern California. In that move, someone forgot to pack my ethnic identity.

My Italian-American father, who was a picky eater, had a significant impact on the foods we ate. I guess many 1950s-1960s American kids grew up in a meat-and-potatoes household. Not me. I was an adult before I realized that flank steak wasn’t always stewed in a tomato sauce, and pork chops weren’t always breaded and served with a tomato sauce.

On those rare nights when my dad worked late, my mom pulled out all the gastronomic stops. She fixed for me that heavenly, ooey-gooey, orangey, stick-to-your-teeth, Kraft macaroni and cheese. When Mom felt a stroke of culinary inspiration coming on, she’d even chop up and mix in a boiled Oscar Mayer hot dog. And so I’d get my vegetables, in went a drained, half can of pale peas.

After spending a weekend at my aunt’s, I came home and insisted my mom make “them purple things” I’d eaten there. For the life of her, she couldn’t figure out what “them purple things” were. She called her sister and learned they were beets. Mom wasn’t allowed to serve a vegetable as exotic as that. Canned peas, corn, and string beans were the only vegetables on my dad’s list of approved foods.

I also ate rice at my aunt’s. At home, our usual side dish was macaroni, served with either tomato sauce or Crisco oil (olive oil was too expensive). Mom rarely made rice, and when she did, it was white and like crunching on coarse sand. Aunt Sister’s rice had flavor and a pale yellow hue. Mom asked her for the recipe. She boiled Uncle Ben’s with a cube of chicken bouillon in the water and a tablespoonful of butter, then she stirred in more butter after it was cooked. I make rice the same way to this day, some fifty years later.

These life-changing food experiences made me realize that a whole world of foods, ones without tomato sauce, waited for me. But I credit my father’s picky habits for expanding my culinary and cultural curiosity.
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Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, MFA, CG, is the author of twenty-two books, including Tell It Short: A Guide to Writing Your Family History in Brief, You Can Write Your Family History, and the forthcoming Inheriting the Gordon Hips, a collection of humorous essays. Sharon teaches various online courses in genealogy and family history writing for Salt Lake Community College’s Certificate in Genealogical Research and Writing program. Her websites are www.SharonCarmack.com and www.NonfictionHelp.com.

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