Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Remembering Mammaw

While many of us earnestly research and write of ancestors long buried, the family history writer can leave a legacy of stories to future generations through memoirs and oral history woven among the dry facts of name, place and time. Years ago, I began my work as a genealogist. However, it was soon apparent that I desired more depth of my family’s history from my efforts. So my research evolved into the work of a family historian.

My experience at ancestral family research has been a challenge. My remote ancestors left few records detailing their lives. Only those born in the 20th century obtained literacy. One of my ancestral lines eschewed the broader community of city or town. They preferred, it seems to remain isolated along the Blue Ridge Mountains of the western Carolinas, where the outside world rarely ventured. I can use generalities from circumstantial evidence and social histories of the region in order to imagine the content of the daily lives of these ancestors, but I cannot know it. Thus, their stories are imbued with uncertainty and disclaimers.

However, from my long interest in oral history and its methodologies, I recognize that I can leave to my descendants a first person account of their ancestors as told in the ancestor’s own voice or the voice of an eyewitness. So over the past several years, I have collected narratives from my living generations. Slowly, I hope to compile these accounts into a family’s journey through generations. I do this because I discovered during the process of family oral history research what it means for me to be the person that I am. I would like to teach my children how to understand themselves through their origins.

Not all such accounts, whether biographies or memoirs, are easy for me to write. Facts are easy enough to collect, but the interpretation that weaves these facts coherently into an understanding of events are difficult and sometimes painful. The story about my maternal grandmother is one example. So much of her life was so closely connected with the latter part of my mother’s life. It was difficult to write about my mom as a major character in Mammaw’s story. Each time I would write “Mother” or “Mom” in the draft, I could feel grief surface and my objectivity as an historian dissolve into tears. When I began using my mom’s given name, however, the one that my grandmother gave her, I was able to distance myself enough to allow Mammaw’s voice to more clearly come through. It helped enormously to examine that period from someone else’s perspective. It added dimension to my knowledge and understanding of two women who were so prominent in my life.

An earlier version of Mammaw’s story was originally published in The Dallas Journal (2007).


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Once in a cycle the comet
Doubles its lonesome track.
Enriched with the tears of a thousand years,
Aeschylus wanders back.

—John G. Neihardt [1]

When my mother died in 1991, the director at the mortuary asked me how did she like to wear her hair and did she wear lipstick or eye shadow? Her remains were being prepared for burial, but he spoke of her as if she still existed, as if she still lived. In Mexico and among many Native American tribes, there is the belief that you experience death three times. The first death occurs when your spirit departs the body; the second, when your body returns to Mother earth. The final death occurs only when there is no one who still remembers your name. It is only after the third death that are you truly dead. My mother lives still.

Sometimes, in a quiet moment among microfilm and dusty records, I will sense ghostly encounters with ancestors. Something fleeting and formless will flutter from a page. A voice, whose tone and tenor is too effaced to be clearly heard, will echo across time. I wonder what the shamans would say about my endeavors as a family historian. By discovering the name of an unknown parent, can I resurrect those who have experienced that third death? I suspect that the answer is ‘no’ because my efforts are formed from fragments of a life, not memory of it. Still, there is this vague disquiet that comes with the prolonged study of a life long gone from human memory. I have never asked other genealogists if they, too, detect apparitions hovering at the periphery of their research. Perhaps to do so is to seem unscholarly, non-objective in one’s work.

Loren Eisley encountered a similar cadre of apparitions. He often wrote about them. As a paleontologist, he understood that the essence of being human is not contained in a solitary skull vault. He described it as shadows dancing on the walls of a cave, a word uttered by the fire. This essence eludes us and is gone when we come with spades upon the cold ashes of the campfire four hundred thousand years hence. Eisley also believed that it is the creation of the written word, giving birth to history, that has enabled us to survive as a species. Perhaps he is right. Through myth, then through written history, we have extended human memory beyond the individual lifetime. Perhaps, we can hold back that final death with our re-search for forgotten family memories.

Like the comet of Neihardt’s poem, my mother, indeed all my loved ones who have passed, returns periodically in memories of conversations, in photographs, in letters and documents. Each cycle of recalling those past events denotes an opportunity to discover something new. Sometimes about them; sometimes about me. Eisley believed that this was the real process of scientific research, seeing ourselves as part of the scientific question.

I began this blog in July 2007, a mere nine months ago, not sure that anyone would read it. But, apparently, some people have because, as of today, the stats at WordPress, report that people have stopped by more than 5,000 times since last year. Another statistic informs me that some of you have found what is posted here promising enough to add this blog to a reader list or a feed. Other than a few comments left here, none of these numbers tell me if you like what you read. Nor do they tell me who you are, but I thank you for visiting. I hope that you will come by again.


  1. Neihardt (1881-1973), whose quote appears above, may be unfamiliar to many of you. Although he is better known as a poet, he was, in fact, a historian who wrote about the American Midwest and its native inhabitants. He published his research in a variety of genres, including epic poetry.

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Happy New Year, All!

This year is going to be a busy one with new challenges. I have been named editor to a local society’s journal. So I may be posting items on the issues of getting one’s research published on the smaller scale, IOW, not book length. If you visit this blog from time to time, then I can guess that you are interested in writing well and that you wish to someday see your writing in print. So let’s start with some of the practical issues of getting from idea to print (or XML, if you desire electronic publication).

One of the best ways to start writing the family history book that you envision is by writing your family’s story in smaller chunks. Submit articles to a journal or newsletter whose focus is the region or surname that is prominent in your article. While most genealogical journals and society newsletters are not juried the way The American Genealogist, New England Register, and National Genealogical Society Quarterly are, you can still ask the editor if he or she minds giving you feedback on your submission.

The feedback you want will vary somewhat with the type of article that you wrote. But there are certain basics that apply regardless of whether the article is a biography of a “black sheep” ancestor or describing how you finally pieced together the evidence that proved one’s lineage. In this post, I will cover spelling and grammar.

First impressions are lasting—make them positive.

The first thing that you want to do is activate your grammar and spell checker on your wordprocessing software (if not already activated). However, don’t stop there. “There” and “their” are both correctly spelled words but they are often used in the wrong place within a sentence. Editors don’t want to be correcting spelling and grammar. So have someone else proof your near final copy of the article to be sure that you’ve caught those little irritating errors. Hey, even the most experienced writers make such mistakes, so do don’t beat yourself up if you find them in your drafts. [Insert: save that until you find those mistakes in the published copy. <g>]

Another tool that I use is “text to speech” software. Text-to-speech software was developed for the visually impaired and people with dyslexia. But it helps me to find other minor glitches that crept into the text from the dozens of re-writes and edits over the course of the article’s development. Removing text and replacing it with other text is one of the ways many technical errors found in my own writing are introduced. I have Adobe Pro 7.0 which has “text-to-speech” functions within the software. So I cannot recommend any package that is stand-alone. My best advice is to talk to someone at your local public school about what software they use for children with visual impairments or dyslexia. You might also check with your local public library to see what software they may have on their computer systems for people with such needs. Finally, search for internet websites that offer text-to-speech software from free download (basic functions) to modest prices ($39.99) to expensive ($299, plus). If anyone has recommendations, please share them with us here.

By the time I’ve asked a friend to provide that “human factor” in reviewing a piece of my writing, they think that I don’t make those silly composition mistakes that everyone else makes…boy, are they wrong.

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Season’s Wishes

Although I don’t usually post personal messages on this blog. I try to keep it focused upon the research and writing aspects of genealogy. But I decided to make a “seasonal” exception in favor of the holidays.

During the holidays, I will most miss those family members, now passed. Some years back, I wrote the following poem. I was reflecting on how much I was beginning to look like my mother and grandmother as they aged. Although my thoughts were not on family history at the time I wrote it, there is a sense of a gathering, a family reunion, whenever I research my ancestors and learn about their lives. The poem reflects that sense of reunion.

By whatever name you celebrate this season of promise, of family, and of devotion, I wish you the best of peace, love, and joy. Let us gather again, here, after the new year.

The Gathering

The body characterizes
Everything it touches,
Forming a living relic
From one’s own history.
As our origins frame us,
So our choices claim us
And we hope that the effort
Of our life’s whole design
Will triumph over imperfect parts.
That in our passing ,we leave behind
A legacy to those who, with us,
Formed sweet objects in our hearts.

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Teaching the topic “Learning from Family” to a class of beginning genealogists, I described how I gather family stories from relatives when I visit, some distant cousins. At the end of the class, a student wrote on the feedback survey that she did not think that the information learned from the class would be useful for her. You see, she explained, all her older relatives were dead. The class being over, I did not have the opportunity to stress that family history research is not just about ancient ancestors. It is about understanding ancestors in the context of social history—AND it is about understanding the family in which we now live. DNA does not trace that information for us. Documents rarely offer those insights. Stories do.

So now my lectures on family oral history, I start with the questions: What do you want to know about a ancestor, who is now gone? Can you name five ancestors whom you would love to resurrect for an evening, share a meal, and ask them questions about their lives? I share my top five (I actually have more):

  1. Burt MOORE (ca. 1756-1836)—my 4th great grandfather who served as an Indian spy during the American Revolution. After independence was won, he settled in the remote parts of South Carolina. When children and other relatives moved westward, he stayed. What kept him bound to the land on which he lived and died? What was his first wife’s given name?
  2. Bluford FLANARY (ca. 1822 – ca. 1878)—my 2nd great grandfather. He served in the VA State home guard during the Civil War. He had two brothers, named Black and White (really!), who served the Union from KY. The men lived within 100 miles of one another. All three men must have been close as brothers because they named sons after one another. My central question would be “how did these political differences affect their relationships?
  3. Flossie FLANARY (1910-1993)—my grandmother. Her father died when she was seven, leaving her mother to raise six girls alone. Poor to the point of heartbreak, her mother put all six girls to work in fields to pick whatever they could for a few cents a day. My grandmother’s education ended at age 9. She did not go beyond fourth grade. My central question would be “having experienced many hard times (loss of a parent, the Great Depression, divorce, widowhood, …) during your life, which was the most difficult for you? Which one taught you the greatest wisdom about life?
  4. Virginia COLE (1926-1991)—my mother. Dealt with health problems while raising four of her twelve grandchildren, sometimes with only a disability check to support everyone. If she could pick a defining moment in her life, one whereby if that moment had not occurred her life might have turned out differently, what would that moment be? Would she change it if she could?
  5. Joab MOORE (ca. 1855 – ??)—my great grandfather. According to family lore, Joab died in GA on 21 August 1909. He was murdered by a person/persons unknown. When he failed to return home from a cattle buying trip, wife, Mary Lou, asked her sons, Jim, Will, and Henry to go looking for their father. They discovered his body thrown in a ravine along side the road on which he had been traveling. But research points to the “boys,” then grown men and married lived 150 miles apart, two in GA, one in Pickens, SC. In 1909, telephones were sparse in rural South Carolina. So it surely took a couple of days for the brothers to meet, agree to search, and ultimately find their father. The story, as passed down in the family, begs several questions. My central question would be “Tell about your death. How did it occur? When did it occur?”

Of course, these questions are just the start of that fantasy evening of conversation and stories, but they make a point with my audience. As family historians, we have questions about our ancient ancestors and questions about those departed ancestors that we knew. Sadly, we don’t think to ask those questions until after they have died. Our family history is diminished by the missed opportunity. Some questions are basic, but others are a desire for stories—stories that define the person and, by extension, the family with whom they lived.

I think that I can speak for most genealogists on one point: After we die, we hope to leave a legacy of connectedness behind us. Technology now allows us to gather stories and create historical records on par with any written document—if we also apply the methods used by professional oral historians. As genealogists, we search for records, analyze and interpret them, but we don’t think of being able to create an historical record. That is the perspective that I would like for other genealogists to consider. As family historians, we have the opportunity to create an historical record that can reveal the spirit of those lives; fill in gaps in the public/written record; preserve family values and traditions; and help us appreciate the influence of time and place upon our kin and ancestors.

Then, I invite my audience to flip the handout over and during my talk, write the names of living relatives: nieces, nephews, children, in-laws…, let your list continue.

My list of “living ancestors” is longer than the one about dead people. To give you an idea of the kinds of story that can come out of ordinary lives, I’ll share three. Since these are living people, I publish only their initials.

  1. J. R.—career soldier in the U.S. Army. Combat veteran, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mother of an autistic child. When she is deployed overseas, she must leave her son in the care of others, something that is difficult for both mother and son. Both her combat experiences and her family concerns would produce powerful stories.
  2. D. F.—mentally retarded. After living with his mother and grandmother until age 35, he finally achieved independence. He was married, only briefly, with no children. He supported and took care of himself, living alone, with only someone to help him manage his finances. Age and health issues forced him to chose a group home for men like him. Going from living with his mother to independence to modified independence. What made the greatest challenges? How did he feel about giving up full independence? During his youth, there were no special education classes, he attended with regular students. What was his school experience like? Did he feel that being “slow” make him different from other children? Given that he was once married, did he ever desire to have children? (D. F., by the way, has a remarkable memory for places and people’s names.)
  3. P.N.—married at age 15 to an alcoholic. After 20 years marriage, divorced and remained single. What were the most difficult challenges, as a single mom, that she faced after her divorce. How did that relationship change her life? What were her fears about her children growing up in an alcoholic household? How did she deal with those fears.

Who are the “living ancestors” in your life? Ask children about their grandparents, who probably told them stories about the “olden days.” Ask them about what they enjoyed best or least about that grandparent. Interview siblings about parents. Often they can recall events that you have forgotten. How did they see those parents? What stories can they tell about that relationship? Ask them about their own lives? What would they most like to be remembered for?

Record their stories for posterity. Let them tell it in their own words. As family historians, you don’t always have to research in the remote past. Preserve something of the present for those family historians who will follow into your footprints.

© 2007, Sharon Gayle, all rights reserved.

 First printed in The DGS Newsletter, 33(5), May 2008.


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After thoroughly writing and editing an article or book–aside from publishing it somewhere–it is a good idea to submit it for a writing award. With most competitions, you can expect feedback on your work even if you don’t win an award.

In this posting, I will note different places where you can submit “ready for the public” items. If you know of any other places where genealogical writing may be submitted for an award, please let me know so that I can add it to this post. Check back from time to time as this particular posting will be updated as I get new information.

Don’t be shy. There are categories for even novice writers.

 Dallas Genealogical Society – neither criteria nor categories is posted on the website. Contact DGS President for details. At this point, I assume that it is open only to current members.

Genealogical Forum of Oregon – Open to all family history writers. Members can enter for free; non-members must pay a $10 entry fee. Each year they select a topic. The 2008 topic is “Saga of a Soldier,” which must be a story centered upon a military experience. Details on website.

International Society of Family History Writers and Editors – open to current members. Details on website.

National Genealogical Society – the website does not say that it is limited to member submissions. You may want to verify if you are not a member.

Oklahoma Genealogical Society – appears to be open to all writers, except members of the Society’s board. See website for details.

South Carolina Genealogical Society – no information available from their website, but criteria includes membership in a SCGS chapter (I belong to Old Pendleton District Chapter) OR an article published in one of the chapters’ newsletters. I don’t think that the chapter newsletters limit their articles to members only. So this may be a loop-hole, so you may want to contact the society before submitting if you are not a member. Notice of the next competition is published annually in the Winter issue.

Southern California Genealogical Society – this competition is national in scope. You do not have to be a member of the society to submit items.

Southwest Louisiana Genealogical & Historical Library – Contest appears to be open to all. The contest closes at the end of December each year. Each year focuses upon a different theme, which is announced in the website’s e-newsletter. In 2006, it was “Rembrances of Rita or Katrina.” In 2007, the theme is “Your Ethnic Ancestor.” See website for details.

Texas State Genealogical Society – open to current members and members of partnering societies (DGS is a partnering society).  I was originally informed that associate members were eligible. I have since been informed otherwise. Details on website.

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The word “critique” intimidates a lot of folks. It shares the same root as “criticize,” which once was a neutral word between praise and censure, but now it carries mostly a negative meaning.  Yet, “critique,” in its best sense (and the one I would hope to use) is “examining and describing the strengths and weaknesses” of a piece of writing.

For different forms of writing, there are different issues. In a piece of fiction, character development is an issue. Not so with an essay or many forms of non-fiction. So given the genre of the piece, explore what is important to the reader: why would a reader pick this item to read? In what ways did the author meet those reader expectations? In what ways could the author have better met expectations. Since you were “a reader,” you offer expert feedback to the author.

If you are unsure on how to give a “constructive critique,” use the approach of completing both of the two following statements:

1.  What I liked best about the paper was ….

2. What I liked least about the paper was ….

Give details; provide examples of your assessments. 

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