Early in my blogging ventures I happened upon an excellent writing site hosted by Lisa Rivero. For this week’s Wordsmith Wednesday, I’m honored that Lisa has agreed to guest-post an article that will inspire those of you who write (or are thinking about writing) Memoir or Family History.
Lisa is a writer of non-fiction in the areas of food, cooking, wellness and parenting. She has written a child’s historical novel which is represented by Bree Ogden of Martin Literary Management. She teaches writing, technical composition, creative thinking and humanities at Milwaukee School of Engineering and lectures around the country on a number of issues including the creative life and parenting gifted children. She also maintains a blog: Everyday Intensity.
Voices Flying Off the Page: The Many Uses of Historical Diaries
Michelle Hoover, whose novel The Quickening is based loosely on a 15-page journal written by her great-grandmother, says that “the voice just flew off the page….When I started to write Enidina based on my great-grandmother, I had it from the beginning.”
Similarly, novelist Rebecca Rasmussen based her novel The Bird Sisters on forty years of her grandmother’s diaries. Rebecca says that after reading and re-reading her grandmother’s words and story, “I came to the determination that I should close the journal and let their voices, which were now fully invested in my heart, speak for themselves.”
Ever since I began a long-term project of reading and transcribing the diaries of my great-aunt Hattie—all 77 volumes and over 37 years of them—I have been amazed and heartened by how many other people also have similar family treasures and hold them close. For writers, the experience of reading another’s life and voice with care offers both inspiration and rich historical details. Consider these two entries by Hattie:
April 22, 1933: A man and wife soliciting for the Salvation Army were here yesterday, and Wm gave them 50 cents and one old hen.
April 21, 1935: Will did a lot of jobs in a.m., emptied ashes, put potatoes and smoked meat in the cellar, and helped me with breakfast dishes, made ice-cream, got in a lot of water. This is Easter Sunday, and the Furrey Family went to O’Kreek, but there was no church, so came back home, ate breakfast, finished chores, came over here for dinner, for I dressed a chicken that Will got me, roasted it, baked a cake, mopped the front room and kitchen floors. Fritz came in p.m., and he will help Lattimores this coming week. Furreys and us to School Picnic and Kitten-ball, then more ice-cream.
Anyone writing about the Midwest in the Great Depression now knows that 50 cents and an old hen were an acceptable donation to the Salvation Army, that potatoes and smoked meat were stored in the cellar, that in the days before cell phones it was common to drive to a country church only to find no priest, and that, in this particular family, the husband was quite the helper around the house. Fritz was one of Hattie’s nephews, and like many young men, he earned money by working at various farms when he could (“he will help Lattimores this coming week”). A little additional research uncovers that kitten ball was an early name for softball, the rules of which were standardized only in 1933.
I’m finding that using dairy entries as prompts for short flash pieces is an excellent writing exercise. Ideas include challenging yourself to capture the diarist’s voice, portray a setting, imagine a dialogue, or write the scene from the perspective of someone else who is mentioned in a particular entry.
Even if you don’t have any family diaries of your own, plenty of digital historical material is available online. Here are just a few examples, and you can find many more by searching state historical societies, university library holdings, and genealogy records and blogs.
• One of the most fun sources is Historical Diaries on Twitter, where you can follow perhaps the most famous diarist of them all, Samuel Pepys.
• The Historic Iowa Children’s Diaries collection features diaries by children of settlers.
• The Mormon Missionary Diaries is a vast, searchable digital collection of diaries kept by over 100 missionaries.
• The Wisconsin Historical Society offers rotating excerpts from diaries in their collection, currently featuring the diaries of Emily Quiner, a 23-year-old school teacher in Madison.
• The Library of Congress’s Nebraska Settlement and Family Letters website offers both photographs and letters from two homesteading families.
• The high-school teaching guides Diary of a Planter and Diary of a Farm Wife from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are annotated diary entries that are informative for adults as well as young students.
• In Diaries on the Web: A Practical Guide, Joanne Riley shares presentation slides about how to find and share diaries online.
• Finally, I was excited to find online the diaries of Martha Ballard, upon which historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich based her excellent book A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785 – 1812.
What is your experience of family diaries? Do you keep a diary of your own?
When you have a few moments, be sure to take the time to pay a visit to Lisa at http://lisarivero.com You will not be disappointed. Thank you, Lisa, for sharing your insights with us.