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Posts tagged ‘memory’

Building a Sense of Family

June 11, 2015

Susan Marg

The Association of Personal Historians is running a twenty-part series on why you should write your family history. Inspired by New York Public Library staffer Carmen Nigro, the weekly posts expand on her list of reasons, going into detail on such topics as the wisdom, humanity, and history that are derived from such endeavors.

I contributed to this effort with “Building a Sense of Family,” shown below. Read on. Read more.



When contemplating writing your family history, there is often the underlying fear of offending a favorite aunt or insulting a beloved cousin, setting off a family feud that lasts longer than the long-running game show. However, it is much more likely that other relatives hold your observations of both esteemed and wayward kin, and your record of your shared history will be appreciated. The rewards of preserving family recollections are so much greater than the risk.

You don’t have to be a writer to do your life or family history. You’re not competing with anyone else or comparing your life – or your writing — with those of others. You’re doing it for yourself, possibly to see how far you’ve come in life, or to leave a legacy for your children, their children, and nieces and nephews, as well.

Research conducted at Emory University shows that “family stories provide a sense of identity through time, and help children understand who they are in the world,” psychologists Robyn Fivush and Marshall Duke wrote. They appreciate that they belong to something bigger than themselves. The more children are aware of their background, the better their emotional health, the more resilient they are coping with stress.

This research involved asking “yes” or “no” questions, such as: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your parents went to high school, their experiences growing up, and how they meet? Do you know whom you resemble in the family? Topics certainly discussed around the dinner table and covered in a family history.

But why stop there? What do you remember about growing up, the neighborhood where you lived, and the family rituals in which you participated? What do your children know of your first job, your favorite holiday, or your most embarrassing moment? Why not share your experiences to everyone’s benefit?

A current Subaru commercial, titled “Memory Lane,” which I think is charming, taps into the feeling that comes when different generations of a family relate to each other.

A grandmother, son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter are on a drive in the country.   The grandmother, who has that aging hippie look about her, is intent on connecting with her granddaughter. She shows her her crystal collection. At a flower stand where they’re petting a cat, the granddaughter asks her, “Can you really talk to cats?” The grandmother nods and smiles.

When they reach their destination, a tree in the middle of a field, the grandmother says, “This is where I met your grandpa, right under this tree.”

The little girl runs over and hugs the tree.

In the next frame, they’re all hugging the tree, when the grandmother has second thoughts. “Or was it that tree?” she wonders out loud.

The commercial closes with the tagline: Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru. Love also makes a family, and knowing your family history strengthens those bonds.

I was having lunch with my mother the other day, and she, reminiscing, told me a story I had never heard before, one that hadn’t made my family history. “Do you know what a radiator is?” “Yes,” I responded. A radiator heated my first college apartment. “Well, when I was a little girl,” she continued, “I once burned myself so badly by leaning against a hot radiator I couldn’t sit down for weeks.” Thinking about the incident, she concluded, “That’s what life is, I guess, all those little moments.”

As a personal historian, I couldn’t agree more. As a daughter, I felt closer to my mother than ever before.

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Into the Looking Glass

February 25, 2015

Susan Marg

Stock image: Depositphotos

Stock image: Depositphotos

Upon joining the Association of Personal Historians, a growing organization of professionals committed to helping anyone who wants to preserve their life and family stories, I thought I’d check out some of the recommended resources on memoir writing to hone my craft. I started with Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away.

Goldberg is a poet, an author, and a writing teacher. She inspires and encourages writing, in general, and writing memoirs, more specifically, with beautiful language, thoughtful advice, and practical exercises. But she’s also a disciplinarian, a stickler for details. She won’t accept excuses, although she’d be pleased if you wrote about them.

Goldberg rounds up the usual subjects that you can cover in a memoir – grade school, driving lessons, favorite holidays, and places called home. And then there’s the unusual – your mother’s shoes, your father’s dresser, your brother’s bicycle. Regardless, her exercises always have a point: she wants you to get in the practice of writing. As she observes, “There are no prescriptions in writing, no one way that will get you there forever. A little jig, a waltz, the cha cha, the lindy, a polka – it’s good to know a lot of moves, so when it’s your time, which is right now, you can dance your ass off.”

If you’re writing a life history, Goldberg also wants you to get in the routine of remembering. “Memory doesn’t work so directly,” she advises. “You need to wake up different angles.” Often her directive following her ruminations on a topic is: “Go. Ten minutes.” On this particular subject it’s to spend time on the phrase “I remember.”

As imaginative as some of Goldberg’s suggestions are, not everyone will willingly go where she leads. Clients might not feel like jotting down their thoughts about sex or money. Thinking about “the road not taken” or describing a winter funeral once attended might be deemed counterproductive to the task at hand. However, her sentiments are heart-felt and wise.

I recommend Old Friend From Far Away to anyone who wants to step through the looking glass into a seemingly distant world. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear, especially if you practice.

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Mother, May I?

January 29, 2015

Susan Marg

What games did you play growing up? My brother and I had lots of board games – Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, Candyland. Outside he shot hoops; I was partial to hopscotch and jacks, always practicing. With other kids in the neighborhood, we played Hide ‘n Seek, Red Light/Green Light, or Mother, May I? With the later, failure to ask permission from “Mother” to advance meant returning to the start and beginning again. Ah, that was the rub.

Stock image from depositphotos.

Stock image: depositphotos.

When writing a memoir or life history, do you first ask permission to write about a loved one or do you skip that step and apologize later? It’s an age-old dilemma. Going back several years to 2007, Slate magazine ran a series of articles by memoirists, including one by Mary Karr, author of Liar’s Club and Cherry. In her essay below, Karr notes she was always upfront and personal with her friends and family.

The Liar’s Club: How I told my friends I was writing about my childhood—and what they said in return. By Mary Karr

As soon as you start to leave things out—to shape a tale—you’re maneuvering the actual. Can I tell about the boy who raped me without investigating who may have raped him as a child (data that would certainly spin the moral compass a few degrees at least)? Not without dismantling history. Hence the innate scorn with which memoirists get treated—it’s a scuzzy business at best, displaying your wounds in the marketplace, making close compatriots into “characters.” How dare I? I did take a few precautions.

Every major character in both memoirs (still alive) was alerted to the project in advance and “warned” about scenes they might find troubling—i.e., I told my mother I intended to recount her psychotic break. I told my best high-school friend (Meredith) that I’d describe her cutting herself, as well as her brother’s stint in jail. My pals who show up in Cherry were alerted as well—Clarice (from grade school), Meredith, John Cleary (the first boy I ever kissed), Doonie (the drug dealer), Stacy (an acid-taking volleyballer), along with two high-school boyfriends and my remaining family. While I didn’t call them for “research” purposes, many told me stories I’d forgotten that wound up in print. Those folks are always thanked up front.

Maybe it’s strange that—given my advanced age—I’ve stayed in touch with all these people through the years. Doonie, Stacey, Clarice, Meredith (until she died a few years back), John Cleary, and I remained (and remain) close. Definition: We continue to celebrate each other’s birthdays, at least by phone call and Hallmark card. We speak at Christmas. Every few years, we visit. Many of these folks joined me at the Texas Book Festival in 2000 when Cherry came out.

Maybe this ongoing closeness made writing about them easier. Or maybe they’re just tolerant individuals, which they’d have to be to associate with me for so long.

Once the manuscript was completed, I sent it to these primary characters for fear I’d misremembered or misrepresented them. The one small complaint I got was from a rock musician (an ex-beau) who worried that I said he’d smoked pot as a teenager—a scene he didn’t deny but now found embarrassing. I offered to take the scene out but refused to change how I remembered it. He preferred it stay in.

The large complaint involved my friend Meredith. She asked that I take out the scene of her cutting herself with a razor. She didn’t mind if I reinserted it in later editions, after her elderly mother died. To write it and blur the identity of the “cutter” seemed a fat lie to the reader—plus, it’s a different kind of betrayal: Watching a stranger taking a razor to herself just differs—morally speaking—from watching a dear pal. So, I’d initially intended to cut the chapter altogether. Then “Stacey,” our volleyball-playing pal, said she’d prefer to claim the cutting acts as her own. Stacey felt the scene was socially relevant and in some way “true” and that the book would suffer from its absence. This is the only intentional falsehood I’ve consciously constructed—other than fake names. It’s the one time I’ve let literature rule over fact. And now that Meredith and her mother are both dead, I correct the score.

Oh, and the Liars’ Club stories in that book (minus one I’d tape recorded) were sheer fiction, but since they deal with frozen farts and the like, I figured their historical accuracy would never be under dispute.

After both books’ publications, several minor neighborhood characters and teachers wrote me or came to hear me speak. It tickled me that a number of the guys I surfed with at Meekham’s Pier showed up at a bookstore in Houston. The oddest character participating was an old pal who’d vanished into the Witness Protection Program back in the late ’70s. The greater complaint has been that I didn’t use real names or the real name of our town. In other words, people preferred to be affiliated with their representations in the book. Some folks were pissed I left them out.

I’m certain that I’ve forgotten, blurred, or misremembered a zillion events, characters, and details large and small. Also, at this point in literary history, it’s understood that memoir is not an act of history but an act of memory, which is innately corrupt. That said, I believe a writer makes a contract with the reader to tell the truth. I try to stick with the stuff that’s stuck hardest with me. And if I don’t recall something I know the reader will wonder about, I announce it’s been forgotten. In the one case when a family member differed not on facts but on their interpretation (my sister remembered a grandmother I found malign as a nice old lady), I told the reader as much (I added—not so slyly!— that the same sister also voted for Ronald Reagan: twice). Maybe I’ve avoided complaints due to my own character—not that it’s stellar, but the converse: If someone’s behaving like an asshole in my book, it most always tends to be me.