Camp Sumter, Andersonville, Georgia
“James. James. Wake up. Wake up,”
“Lem’me sleep, dammit. Go away,”
“No, sir. Ain’t goin’ nowhere, anyway. Might as well keep you up.”
Private First Class James Cass Dutton, of the Union Army, was a member of the
Army of the Ohio that was raised from volunteers out of Kentucky, Tennessee
and Georgia. His men were conscripts. They were all dying, freezing to death.
A hacking fit overcame him. Each cough burst fresh with sporadic steam,
evidence of how truly low their core body temperatures were getting. He
hoisted himself to his feet, which were wrapped in rags, like everyone. He
looked at Sergeant Major Johnson. They were both stomping their feet for
warmth. Anything for warmth.
“John, you’re a good man.”
“I owe you for saving my life. Now let’s get moving.”
“Is there anything hot to drink?”
“That vat of sludge they call coffee is made with water from the stream. Men
have been dying in that stream. Ain’t fit to drink.”
“If it’s boiled, the germs is dead, S’arnt Major.”
The old man, the senior enlisted in command, wrapped an arm around the private
he treated like a son, or a father, or someone he respected, and began the trek to
the boiling vats. Stumbling across the rough ground, weaving among the Union captives,
Private Dutton took stock of what was before him. How the hell did they get the drop
on him and his men? Was he ever going to see his sweet Rebecca again? His children?
His teeth chattered with the bitter cold. He clenched his jaws.
“Damned right you are,” said the Sergeant Major
Private Dutton startled, not realizing he’d spoken aloud. He stopped and faced
the small group of soldiers huddled together for warmth.
“Men, if I kill that sonofabitch Rebel so-called commander, you use your numbers and
hit the gate arunnin’. Run right through’em and through the gate, too. Some of y’all
will get out.”
They stared back at him. This scrawny group of starving men, barely strong enough to hold
their heads up. Private Dutton looked around. White frost and snow covered everything,
including the blankets and coats clung to by the men. He had already buried nine of them in
the damn cemetery. These men were like family. Someone were from the same township as
him. As friends and neighbors, they helped each other in rough times and, by God. These
were times to stand shoulder to shoulder.
“Goddammit, S’arnt Major. This is my fault. I failed you. I failed these men.”
“No, sir,” a weak voice whispered, hard to hear over the stomping feet.
Private Dutton didn’t recognize the man who spoke. “Who are you, son?”
“Names Private Coburn, from Vicksville. I was the point man commin’ up the hill. Them
rebs warn’t where they’re supposed to be. Twarn’t yourn fault at all.”
Dutton was an old man for a soldier at 53 years. He and four of his eldest volunteered
to serve when the war began. He hadn’t seen his three boys since then. When
he had a chance to think, he worried about them. Rebecca’s last letter, months
ago now, had said they were all okay. But that was a long time ago. As an elder of their town
with adult sons working his farm, and as one who always stood ready to help another who
was down, he had earned the respect of his men.
* * * * *
Camp Sumter, Andersonville it was called, was a rectangular stockade type prison camp, located in south-central Georgia. Built hurriedly, it held more than 45,000 soldiers, 12,912 of the 13,699 Union soldiers buried in the Anderson cemetery, died there. They died from malnutrition, overcrowding, exposure and virulent diseases, e.g., diarrhea, dysentery, gangrene, and scurvy (900 died every month). It is modernly a National Historic Site and monuments from more than fifteen states are within the park ground, honoring the men who were imprisoned and died there. It was conveniently built on the Southwestern (now Central Georgia) Railroad. Twenty-foot-long logs hewn from standing trees by conscripted slaves and confederate soldiers built the camp. The rectangular camp held about sixteen and a half acres originally but was enlarged to more than twenty-six. Yet it was crowded.
A photograph of the crowded conditions.
Sweetwater Creek flowed west to east through the prison yard, neatly dividing it. Mostly enlisted men were imprisoned there; officers were moved to Macon, where a smaller prison camp awaited them. But some refused to leave their men and stayed, Many died. A Union column led by General James H. Wilson captured nearby Columbus, Georgia, and within three weeks, every prisoner had been released and treated. Its commander, confederate Captain Henry Wirz, born in Zurick, Switzerland and educated there was arrested, tried, and hanged in Washington D.C. on November 10, 1865. Clara Barton, the famous Civil War nurse, helped identify and mark the graves of the Union soldiers buried there.
Was the dialogue between the soldiers reported somwhere? No. I made it up. It's fiction. It's a fictional part of my creative nonfiction work. My investigation showed my GGGGF was capture and imprisoned in Andersonville for for nearly two years. I know he was released when the war ended and made it home, as did all of his sons. I stuydied the history of Andersonville from available National Park Service materials and books. I know from writings that the stubborn idea of never quitting has long been a family tradition. My disclaimer shows that this part of the family history is fictionalized for dramatic affect because, what might be more harsh and dramatic than being held captiove in such a horrible place? It was reasonable to surmise the dialogue and estimate the vocabulary and dialect.
* * * * * * * * *
Family history books can be written a few different ways. When a relative hears you’re writing one, she may think it’s a great idea, envisioning genealogical charts, pictures, copies of obituaries, and facts about the history of each person. She might envision a fat volume of some one-thousand pages because laying out the roots of each branch is tedious and has to be clear. I watch for books like this at garage sales and other places, like the public library’s nonprofit shop staffed by elderly volunteers who sell treasures for a quarter or fifty cents. The title is frequently, The Smiths of Arizona: a Pioneer Family. When I find one, I snap it up, post a notice describing it on genealogy sites, and send it at no charge to the first related family member who wants it. It has no value to anyone else and I am not the sort of person who holds a valuable genealogy work, which took someone hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to write, hostage for ten bucks. I am happy to give it to someone related to the family described.
Writing family history, in my view, requires careful planning, intensive and tedious investigation and a flare for amassing stories that reflect the personalities, peeves, quirks, prejudices, and perhaps some physical abnormality or emotional or mental problems of those included. Point of view becomes a problem because you may not want the work to read in purely your voice or from your point of view. It is not about you. Well, part of it may be but, mostly, it is about them. And they may have been dead for two, six or ten generations. You don’t know with what accent they spoke but you might be able to approximate it. You may not know how far they went in school but letters written by them may display a certain level of literacy. They might have been illiterate or well read. Some of the most beautiful penmanship I have seen is in letters written by eighty or ninety year old elders of a family who understand what you want, because they wish they had done it and are willing to write you to tell the story.
The first-year students I teach in my writing class often quietly groan when they hear me lecturing upon the wonders of outlining a work before writing it. The class is rhetorical analysis and organization and clarity of reasoning and thought are paramount. Why would you outline a family history book? Every seen a genealogy tree? If you use a genealogy software, or www.ancestry.com™ and Family Tree Maker™, like I use, you are aware that your tree can come to be peopled with thousands; enough for a town of your own. Even the small branch of the tree that reflects merely you and your parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and great, great grandparents (without including the various siblings, second spouses, and all of their other children), totals thirty-one (31) people! In this minimal tree, you will show sixteen great, great grandparents. Each with an individual and interesting life, all of whom explain how it came to be that you were born. Family history brings into its working mill a wide range of writing techniques: fiction, nonfiction, creative nonfiction, personal essay, poetry, memoir and history. And if you have a real interesting family, perhaps science, technical writing, science fiction, fantasy and romance.
What are you planning on saying about each of these people? Can you find enough to tell some part of each of their stories? Using my family as an example, there is a total of one-hundred-ninety-eight, excluding the live children and grandchildren from the marriages of the siblings of my wife and I (another thirty five, for a total of two-hundred-thirty-three). That is seven generations. My work is incomplete but presently my tree incorporates more than one-thousand-five-hundred people. If a writer wrote a chapter for each person and each chapter averaged five pages, the book would be more than 7,500 pages in length – several volumes! Hardly manageable. How does a writer reconcile this problem? Does a writer risk omitting a person’s story? The reality is that, for many of these people, especially the siblings of the seventh and further back generations, few facts are going to be discovered. The problem solves itself by the omission of facts discoverable by diligent investigation.
Writing memoir and family history is similar to personal essays, such as those found in editor Philip Lopate’s volume of works, The Art of the Personal Essay, published in 1997. We have used this work in writing classes at CSUSM to teach rhetorical analysis. The essays by Scott Russell Sanders, Annie Dillard and others, appear in other anthologies as well as their own works. These authors I read for my own enjoyment of wonderful writing. Sanders has a wonderful ability to connect with the emotions of his readers and Dillard does so and adds the amazing world of metaphor and spirituality.
If I included a scene in a chapter about my Great Great Great Grandfather, in which he is manacled and marched off to imprisonment in a Confederate Army prisoner of war camp in Georgia, incorporating in it imagined dialogue, setting and scene, to dramatize this event, have I violated the rule of being truthful and accurate to my audience of a family history work? You would never guess hat professionals disagree on this question, but they do indeed. I will meander a bit through the trials and tribulations of writing nonfiction before answering the question.
In David Starkey’s Creative Writing – Four Genres in Brief, in the chapter, A Few Things You Should Know about Short Creative Nonfiction, he points out a “… number of qualities that most personal essays have in common[,]” as shown in Lopate’s work, along with a shorter list by Lee Gutkind, the “Godfather of Creative Nonfiction” [incidently, it is my opinion these apply to longer creative nonfiction as well]:
1) It is conversational – often ironic or humorous
2) It values honesty and confession – a necessary component is self-disclosure
3) It dwells on minutiae, while expanding on self
4) It conflicts with popular opinion
5) It tries to reveal self, but without narcissism and pride
6) It demonstrates learning but not as in a scholarly work
7) It is a mode of thinking and being, to test successful story telling
8) Its foundation emerges from personal experience
9) It reflects a writer’s feelings and responses
10) It utilizes factual research in an effort to satisfy accuracy
11) The writers have read the works of others and attend to style and intellectual content
12) It shows the passion of the moment; the magic of the muse (Starkey 162-3).
My approach to the discussion of writing family history begins with knowing how to write the personal essay because it could be a wonderful way for a writer to enter the strange world of using fiction techniques in a nonfiction writing. A personal essay requires the first person voice and invites intimacy less available in third person. Family history can be written in first or third person but, for dramatic affect, is best written in first. Your voice and style are foremost. Your personal opinions, right, wrong, odd, atrocious, humorous, or different are a source of interest to your reader because they invite the reader to engage your work, think about it, perhaps even disagree. A method some use to enter the more substantial work of a family history is to first write a personal essay about a specific ancestor, historical event, or an era which impacted you in articulable ways. Union Private James Cass Dutton, mentoring a company of young volunteers from Tennessee in a battle in Louisiana, was taken captive. A chapter written from his perspective would be third person past tense with active verbs. It would include his capture (based upon Union and Confederate reports about the battle), possibly soldier's diary notes, and everything I can discover about the battle, captives and the prison. For the character of my kin, I would use everything I can reasonably infer from facts discovered in government documents, photographs from family and anything else I can find. If the scene is set apart froma recitation of purely descriptive facts and data, then I would incorporate an explicit disclaimer to demonstrate my effort to be accurate. The larger and overwhelming Confederate forces killed many men then demanded their surrender. Dying would serve no military purpose and, despite the possibility they might be summarily executed, Private Dutton chose surrender over certain death. He spent most of two years in an infested Georgia Confederate prisoner-of-war encampment. He and all four sons that had enlisted with him survived the war and returned home to raise families.
The weather for the time he was there went from below freezing to steaming hot and humid. Infestations of cholera, malaria, whooping cough, pneumonia, bronchitis and influenza ran rampant. As he struggled to stay alive and to keep his men alive, I am sure there were many dark moments of comradeship that tested the will to live of every man. I have read letters and accounts of Union soldiers who endured this plight and have read far too little biographical information about the James Cass Dutton, but enough to feel a sense of his unique character. Using fiction techniques, I am devising a scene that portrays the heroic fight for survival of all the men who survived the prison camps and which depicts some of the character traits of him that carried the day. Fortuitously, the information comprises enough for a scene in the chapters addressing the era of the Civil War, which dramatizes the conflict, portrays a man’s leadership and strength of character and integrity, to engage the readers in a way that makes the Civil War real to readers and suggests that within each of the family may there exists some of these same qualities. In our modern world, we too often do not consider the vital traits of character that, when times were far more harsh, men and women thought about and relied upon to survive.
The questions relate to the values of day-to-day life and reliability which today have been replaced far too often with distrust, ignorance and apathy. I think it is interesting that the men and women of today who think about these fundamental values and make life choices relying upon them, tend to live more satisfying lives in which they know what things are important and which are not. These men and women see in these others, those who have no or little appreciation for these qualities because they have not stood by one another in a combat zone, that which is sadly lacking or missing altogether. The brotherhood and sisterhood of these men truly respect such values as:
- · Caring deeply for one another
- · Willingness to give one’s life to save another
- · Helping another whether asked or not
- · Knowing that each is willing to go that extra mile
- · Helping each other study and learn
- · Helping each other succeed physically
- · Help each other with organization and supervision
We have all seen brothers and sisters fighting over what is in a bequest. They fight and hold grudges because of an impression that one is favored over another. They harbor ill will against one another over the value of gifts. The idea of helping each other study or learn is unheard of. One would never consider helping the other develop good habits of room cleaning and orderliness.
Every morning I wake up is a gift. I cannot imagine why any of my siblings would care whether or not I wrote a family history, which would naturally be primarily from my perspective, although their input is more than welcome and is even desirable. However, and as a family historian you need to consider this with its implications, no other family member has the right to negate your writing nor to tell you that you cannot write about a certain event. There are consequences for both of you to these decisions and being mindful of the possibilities is reasonable. If one wishes to write a memoir or history to “set the record straight,” so to speak, that is acceptable and each has that right.
Investigating, Knowing and Telling Truth
This invites fictionalizing far too much and jeopardizes the need for truth. Annie Dillard referred to two crucial points in a work of nonfiction: “what to put in and what to leave out.” Care must be taken to not fictionalize excessively and to remember that concise writing is called for and every sentence, every word, should be considered. Starkey’s Creative Nonfiction work lists “[t]he elements of creative nonfiction”: (a) organization that is flexible and exploratory, (b) use the truth as best you can, (c) judicious use of scene-setting, dialogue, monologue and character development, (d) use elements of poetry, e.g., imagery, metaphor, simile, rhythm, (e) the essayist’s self and opinions, and (f) use caution when telling the truth, considering defamation.
Family history, like the personal essay and memoir, must draw the reader into the moment, into exploring the chosen theme. All creative nonfiction writers are very concerned about how, what and who chooses, truth. A close friend faced the chaotic destruction of his marriage because his wife chose to have multiple affairs, with unprotected sexual activities, and he face the loss of home, hearth, family, and had to face the false loyalty, lies, and betrayal that that was revealed. As a person of high integrity, who placed a very high value on loyalty, and who loved unconditionally, he was emotionally destroyed. His version of what happened was undoubtedly wrapped in his perceptions but, how inaccurate could they be? The other version was similar factually, with far less emotional destruction, and seemed almost coldly calculating. But was that true? Was the cold calculation a mask for emotional upheaval? Was it a form of emotional denial that would let the person deal with the harsh reality with more reason and fewer emotions? My response to him was to consider life as a fiction.
The life he leads and perceives others leading is what he believes to be true. This is his reality, but because it is wholly premised upon his perceptions, it is also his fictional perception of what he thinks is real. Others involved have their fictions, too. Their perceptions, beliefs and emotional denials form a reality that for them is how they see their worlds, but it may be no more or less of a fiction than his own perceptions. Thus, while he lives in his world, writing his novel of life, others living in his world are writing their versions and their novels. The truth is something in between those perceptions or so-called realities, and the resulting divorce was an involuntary collaboration to agree upon an acceptable truth that would allow each to go on with their lives.
Each person has a selective memory. I do not mean that she consciously chooses what memories to recognize and others to discard, although it is likely some do just that. I mean that each person recalls an event as accurately as possible, the recollection itself alters the memory, and one who writes about the memory alters it further. The next time the memory is accessed, a new memory emerges, with changes and emotions different from the original recollection. This is a well recognized neuroscientific phenomena. Writers of personal stories, whether a personal essay, memoir or family history, should take this into account. If you have read the memoir page, I discussed the application of truth there and it doesn’t change for family history.
The degree to which you can use fiction techniques or even fictionalize part of a family history depends upon two considerations. First, have you decided to use accurate know facts only and disregard any creativeness. If so, you will be verifying facts, supporting them with citations to sources, and essentially, reporting the facts as told or recorded by someone in the past. If you take this approach, you may want to ask of each reported fact. How the reporting person knew it and how was it known to be accurate. Whether you are relying on a newspaper account, a letter from son to father, an obituary, or a journal, what you are reading is that person’s perceptions or so-called knowledge based only upon what has been told to her or what she has witnessed, in her opinion. Second, if you write a disclaimer, saying that parts of this work are fictionalized but based upon what facts could be found in research or corroborated by any secondary source, then you are free to use fiction techniques to create a story using dramatic prose, dialogue, monologue, and other tools of the fiction writer, to create a part of the work that may bring more life to your project. You have not promised to tell the truth, only the truth, and nothing but the truth; you have promised to tell the truth where appropriate and to use known truth with fictionalization to dramatize part of the story from time to time.
Truth is tied directly to the writer’s viewpoint of it and how the facts are interpreted. When I was a police officer, I frequently took witness statements at accident and crime scenes. Invariably, what each witness reported was what the person thought she felt, saw or heard, and usually, it was different from the perceptions of another witness with an equally good vantage point. This proved true while I practice law. Whether personal injury, workers’ compensation, a crime, or the signing of a contract, the witnesses to the event always told different stories. Some might remark, “Ah, but those witnesses might have motivation to tell a different story!” This would be especially true of the persons directly involved. Is this less true of a story told fifty years ago to a newspaper reporter, or to a family member who wrote it in her journal? Motive existed then, too, did it not? Biases, prejudices, slants, or viewpoints may always make the story a bit, or a lot, different than reality, which to an untrained observer is merely what one thinks one saw. To the comment of each witness having self-serving motivations, I say: “So what?”
This brings us to the trained observer. These are usually people like police officers, air traffic controllers, pilots, physicians, nurses, health practitioners, news reporters, and the like. Do they misperceive and misreport? Yes, they do. Do motives exist for altering the report of an observation? Yes, they do. Think about it. Finally, to that wonder of unbiased wonder reporters, the camera or video. How do the facts recorded by these objects become errant? In the interpretation of what is seen by the human watching or looking at the picture and perhaps listening to sounds. The repeatedly broadcast pictures, whether still photography or video, are many to choose from. Let’s take just one: studied by more experts and people than probably any other in the history of video-photography: the assassination of U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Yes, the Zapruder film.
Mr. Zapruder had no idea what was going to happen that day; at least there is no reason to think so. He was in a unique position to record most of the second half of the act of assassination – when the fired rounds struck Governor Connolly and the President and many other people were in even better positions but were not filming. No one recorded the rounds being fired from Oswald’s rifle, the book depository building, or anywhere else. So what we have is part of the second half of an event. Are the facts shown in the film subject to multiple interpretations? Historical archives of those many different opinions demonstrate multiple opinions. No, pictures are not irrefutable evidence. I have heard prosecutors make that argument when showing videotapes of people seemingly failing field sobriety tests. It is a strong argument and the film is very convincing. How does a defense attorney refute it? Demonstrate that the officer who gave the text can’t pass it either; perhaps he is tired from working a double shift, perhaps he simply messes up and loses his balance. The result may be reasonable doubt.
Recency or immediacy is remarkably useful when writing a work of creative nonfiction and persuading your reader that what you are writing is real. Lawyers are well known for coining terms. If the way you write a scene gives it a sense of recency or immediacy, readers are more likely to believe it. This can be accomplished by writing them in the present tense and using specific details. This is true even if the event is one fictionalized from facts known about something that happened in 1860, one-hundred-fifty-one years ago! Your disclaimer protects you from accusations of falsifying facts – the part that says that some events are dramatized and presented partially as fiction but based upon facts known or fairly surmised based upon research of the event. That is not just lawyer-speak; it’s essayist-speak.
No reader can reasonably expect anyone to have a precise recollection or the ability to recite it precisely. I have never met a person, or heard of one, who could do so. The art and craftsmanship of creative writing allows us to be human. If a fact should be omitted because it does not clarify the event or if it muddies the point being made, omission is acceptable. The writer is allowed to use her imagination to tighten the focus of the lens on the subject. Nonfiction writers should not deceive or conceal inapposite facts but, a judicious use of discernment concerning what should be included to emphasize a point or a story is permissible. It is a fine line and must be tread upon with caution and awareness.
When you write about your thoughts, feelings and observations, you are revealing who you are. In your writing, reflect upon your achievements and failures and losses, creating a balanced life story. Find old letters, cards (birthday, anniversary, get well) and diaries or journals because those will show you, and you can show your reader, who the persons and your self were through these.
As Starkey said, “There are many possible versions of the truth” (Creative Nonfiction 184). What you write should feel like it is true when you reflect upon it. Writers and readers seem to have good instinct for what is true and what is not. If your front matter disclaimer warns your reader that, in order to dramatize certain events engaged in by ancestors, you have used tools of fiction to persuade the reader to feel what was occurring, to empathize for deeper comprehension and appreciation, then readers will enjoy the work and forgive fictionalization. However, presenting a fact as true which is proven false can undermine the reader’s confidence in a story, with or without a disclaimer. Where you claim to be truth telling, readers deserve nothing less.
Research is argued by some to be a practice contrary to true creative nonfiction because it implied that you are going to rely upon facts you or your interviewee (e.g., relative, witness, person) did not know. Nonfiction includes all the facts discernable by the writer, from whatever sources, preferably reliable sources. When a writer adds creativity to the mix, all she is doing is telling the reader that the true nonfictional facts are going to be portrayed through opinion, perception, belief, with all the attendant human emotional and physical imperfections that exist. Does this make the writing less true? The end result is the author’s perception of the truth, a perception that is affected by human foibles, poor eyesight, human frailties, and human strengths. A creative nonfiction essayist or writer of a larger work “… re-create[s] things rather than simply making them up. Their base material already exists; the author’s concern is to make that materials interesting to read about” (Creative Nonfiction 185). This brings fiction techniques into play – techniques that are used to dramatize, emphasize, create empathy, sympathy and other reader emotions. It makes the work more fun to read.
A nonfiction writer can derive description of setting from multiple sources: photographs, drawings, and memories. Which produces the more accurate setting description? Most say the photograph. But photographs are taken by people – taken to omit certain things otherwise in view and to include thing in view; taken to show the photographer’s sense of how the setting is best viewed; and interpreted by a photographer with a humanly faulty memory interpreting what is shown; or is interpreted by the writer, who views the photograph anew and must try to understand what is depicted, what is important and unimportant. The Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination is a classical example of photographic manipulation and interpretation, but, remember, no one filmed the shooter(s).
Setting can be described very factually, subject to the writer’s interpretation of what she is seeing, but can reasonably be given aspects of emotionality by a creative writer. A dark forest can appear ominous. A well-lit cabin in a night-time can harken fear of what the dark night brings. A day-time picture of a pizza parlor, where a murder occurred recently, can be described as having emotion-related aspects that otherwise would not make sense. It does not matter what the viewer looks at, it can change with added facts or emotions related to an event involving the setting.
Setting can be described using narrative, monologue and within dialogue. Using narrative description allows the writer to describe the area generally and specifically, but if there is a part of the setting that needs to draw emphasis, consider including it within dialogue between characters. In Andersonville prison there were two stockade fences, an outer and an inner. And inside the inner perimeter, roughly ten feet, there was a single wood rail fence built and crossing into the strip between the rail fence and the inner perimeter meant death:
“James Cass?” said Jerry MacIntosh, a private that had been in four battles with the company. “James Cass? Why’d Shelly do it? Why would he get himself killed like that? Fer no reason t’all? It don’t make no sense to me.”
Private James Cass Dutton kneeled next to Private MacIntosh. He put his right hand on the man’s left shoulder and looked him square in the eyes. Despair has closed like a dark shroud over many of the men. It had to be fought – fought as hard and with as much determination as in hand to hand combat, when knives slashed and bayonets cut deeply.
“He gave up, Jerry. He was down and out. Probably figured he’d never see his wife and kids again. Like you and me, he’d seen enough death to last a couple of lifetimes. I honestly don’t know why he would quit like that. I can tell you this. Listen to me well, son. I will always be here to fight for you. For your family, your freedom and I’ll give up my life to spare yours. You’ve earned that. You’ll never hear me say to quit. Not on staying alive or keeping each other alive. You decide right here and now that he just plain quit. He decided it was his time. That was his right. You have a mother to support and you have two boys. What are they now? Seven and Nine? You and your family live just a half mile from us back home. Your wife and mine are probably cookin’ up some stew right now. Remember them. When you start feeling tired as all hell, just say no to quittin’. The devil in us makes us quit. Say no. Say hell, no. Look up and swear to God Almighty that you’re goin’ home. The damned devil will never hear the word quit out of you. You hear me?”
Jerry seemed to grow stronger as he listened. “Yeah. Loud and clear. Damn him for quitting. I’ll never quit, James Cass. I’ll follow you to hell, but I’ll never quit. I’m goin’ home.”
James Cass Dutton nodded, patted Jerry’s shoulder, and rose. He stared at the rail fence, coated with snow and from which ice-cycles hung. “Damn them for puttin’ that rail there. It’s an invitation to death is what it is. It means one less mouth to feed. Damn them Johnnie Rebs.”
The wooden rail line ran along the whole perimeter of the inner fence of the prison. If a man stepped into it, walked or ran into the space between the rail and the inner fence, the sentries posted every fifty feet in pigeon roosts would shoot him dead. No warnings. No chance to explain that the man was deranged by fever or starvation or sickness. He was dead.
“Got a righteous name. The dead run. Fits the name for the rail, deadline. Deadrun, hell. You don’t get no chance to run nowhere. No where to run anyway,” muttered Jerry.
“Yep. That’s why it’s there. To give us a chance to quit. To take the easy way out. Those bastards are watchin’ for a misstep. One foot in the deadrun and it’s all over but the bleeding. And that’s only if you’re lucky and the bastard in the pigeon roost is a good shot and kills you with the first shot.”
A description of the same fence and the ideas expressed in dialogue can be captured in narrative, but with a different affect. Monologue is a character’s thoughts or dreams. Narrative is an opportunity for the writer to avoid a specific character’s ideas, personality traits, and simply describe setting to show the reader where the scene is occurring:
Private James Cass Dutton eyed the frost covered tents that were set up along the deadline. A sentry box, the Union soldiers pegged them pigeon-roosts, were built at intervals along the stockade fencepost inner perimeter. Each afforded the posted sentry, armed with rifles, to shoot any man who entered the deadrun, the space between the wooded single rail deadline and the inner perimeter fence. It was a way for a despondent soldier to commit suicide. He was never going to have a chance to escape, not that way. Four of the men had ended their lives by walking across the deadline. There was never a warning – just a shot, or two or three if the sentry was a bad shot. Then guards dragged the body out of the deadrun and ordered Union soldiers to pick up the body, take it to the cemetery and bury it. Day or night, sunshine, snow, sleet or rain. None of it mattered. One second you were alive and in two or three steps you were dead.
Using this method, the information is provided to the reader, but without some of the characterization allowed with dialogue. The narrative is coherent and interesting but does not allow for character development the way dialogue does.
Characters and character.
The most interesting part of creative writing, for me at least, is creating characters who seem like they are someone you might have met, someone you remember meeting. They’re familiar o you and you’re comfortable having them in your home. In a family history work, they may seem even more familiar to you, because they are part of who you became. In family history creative works, characters become cardboard cut-outs when the assumes that readers will all be family and, as such, they should know about their ancestors and not worry about whether the characterization of an ancestor brings them to life in the scenes.
Bill Roorbach wrote that, “[c]haracters are the soul of creative nonfiction, … [a]nd characters in nonfiction present special problems: They’re not only based on real people (as is sometimes true in fiction), they are real people” (Roorbach 74). Characters need and are action. They act in your story to bring it to life, through physical acts, dialogue, thoughts and describing the setting. Family members remember things differently. And they will tell you. They may have heard stories you don’t know about. Interviewing them is important to gathering that knowledge. If you don’t or if they’re not speaking with you for some reason, the over-all work might be weakened. Unfortunately, a few of my siblings are not speaking with me. What transgression I committed generated that level of anger, I don’t know. Forgiveness is a virtue and I have forgiven many, whether they know it or not. Even asking for forgiveness and offering apologies sometimes is not enough. Even the Golden Rule can be ignored by family.
In family history works, family members embarrassed by the conduct of a family member is often the subject of s hush, don’t talk about it campaign. This is understandable, especially when the criminal or inappropriate behavior was by a living relative. Even generations old are subject to these efforts to silence truth. This raises a moral and emotional decision the writer must make. Is there an advantage to including the event or allegations in the story? Is there a point to including it? Can it be used to build character or build a story moral to teach others? What if the person is you, the writer? Would you publish a work that has these moments in it? Should the person who is the focus of this part of the story have a veto right? If you don’t write about criminal conduct, especially if there is a conviction, do you also choose not to write about suspicion, innuendo, rumor, domestic violence? Suppose you wrote about it and that publication stopped the conduct? Is your being ostracized worth it? What price are you willing to pay and what price are you willing to force others to pay? If the story is about a member of the third or fourth past generation, does that make it acceptable? Do you sanitize the history and omit the truth? Roorbach said, “Negative emotions and traits, such as jealousy, greed, misery, and meanness, are all part of the story – your story – and shouldn’t be left out any more than the good stuff should be left out … . The truth is the whole story, never half” (Roorbach 79)>
Scott Russell Sanders, a well known professor and writer of personal essays, write about his father’s alcoholism. Mikal Gilmore wrote about his brother, a murderer. These things happened to the writers, too. Characters are who they are in life, even in the past. Part of my own story raises these questions but, should I omit them because they embarrass me or because they might embarrass my family? I don’t mind bringing it out but, if the family history is published, will my family members (e.g. siblings), be even more angry with me for publicizing something that embarrasses them, too? If my story can teach a moral (or more), why not include it? If my half-sister said something true about my father, which occurred while he was married to his first wife (her mother), but never, to the awareness of my siblings, happened in their memories, should that story be omitted? Does it dishonor my deceased half-sister if I don’t tell the truth? Does it dishonor my father if I tell her truth, which none of my siblings know about? Does it dishonor my father and am I obligated to omit the truth to honor him?
Using dialogue to create character.
Details of physical description are needed for readers to see a character, because in family history works, often no one has a photograph of a person or, the ancestor predates photography. Exposition is probably not the best way to describe the physical characteristics of a person but, if no one but family is going to read the family history work, it may not matter. A person can be described using the utilitarian words of a police report. He was white, six foot two inches, about two-hundred forty-five pounds, had brown hair, cut to above the ears, hazel eyes and a small surgical scar on the left nostril. His build was average but later in life, leaned toward heavy around the middle but without a pot belly. These minimal facts cannot be used to envision a person. Shape of the head, chin, mouth, nose, eyes and ears are all important to image. Dentures, appearance of the teeth and structure of the jaws, shade of eye color, the way one stands or sits or walks makes a difference. If I wrote, he walked with a left half-hitch, like John Wayne, you could picture the walk.
Meting out description in small pieces, rather than all at once, usually works better. Some fiction writers and memoirists are superb at this. Sometimes family history is a mixture of bare descriptive exposition and scenes that dramatize something that happened in the person’s life. Depending upon the dearth or wealth of details, that may be necessary. Things to be aware of in dialogue:
- Dialogue words revealing character
- Consistency (each person speak in his or her own way all the time)
- Dialect and accents of region and tone
- Some people have to have the last word
- Manner of speech, e.g., broken (partial sentences), formal, aloof, minimal, happy lilt, upturn at ends, all statements are questions,
- Common speech issues: repetition, ums, ers, restarts, stutters, inexactness, pause for word search, rephrasing, take-backs, scatter-brained, indirect responsiveness, overly direct, rude, condescending, can’t get a word in edge-wise
- Balancing dialogue with short narrative or monologue. Often monologue incorporates a memory raised or accessed because of dialogue
- Avoid artificiality
Disguising characters to avoid libel.
This is a distinctive fiction technique. What do you do when what you are going to write into a family history may make a relative or someone else angry enough to sue you for libel? Libel and slander are forms of defamation. Libel is a false and unprivileged publication by writing, printing, picture, effigy, or other fixed representation to the eye, which exposes any person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided, or which has a tendency to injure him in his occupation. The statute of limitations for libel is one year from the date of discovery. A libel which is defamatory of the plaintiff without the necessity of explanatory matter, such as an inducement, innuendo or other extrinsic fact, is said to be a libel on its face. Defamatory language not libelous on its face is not actionable unless the plaintiff alleges and proves that he has suffered special damage as a proximate result thereof. Slander is the verbal form.
In family history, there is generally no need to disguise a person except to conceal who that person is because you are going to write something about her that is possibly harmful to her reputation. She will occupy a specific place and time within the family so it is unlikely you can successfully conceal identity. Even if she is deceased, close relatives may have a basis for a lawsuit.
Characterization via Monologue.
The thoughts that a person has or had in the past will be truly unknown to you as a writer. Only if the person is still alive and can tell you about the thoughts can thoughts be included (except your own). However, if you know that Henry, Carl’s second son, was very uneasy about voluntarily entering military service and took weeks before making the decision to join (or flee to Canada). And you know, through information that is reliable, that during the time he mused about the idea, that he was troubled by the idea of shooting someone, or that he believed his religious beliefs prohibited him from using a gun to kill, or that he actually once packed his bags to drive to Canada and called and made arrangements with a friend there, or that he would volunteer if he could obtain a guarantee that he would be trained as a medic, or that he did not have trouble with shooting someone in battle but was afraid he would be killed, or that he was afraid he would grow to like killing; any of these things, you can surmise what thoughts must have run through his mind.
If Sheryl was afraid she was going to make a mistake by marrying Theodore because he was rich and she did not trust her motives. Or if she had far more sexual experience than she had let on and was afraid of his reaction when he inevitably found out. Or she had lied about her relationships with other men or his brother or uncle and knew it would devastate him. Or if she had secretly had a month long relationship with Veronica when she was sixteen and discovering her sexuality. And you know some of these things because she confessed them to you or you read her diary after she died and it was very revealing, what will you decide to do with the information? This is the spice of good reading. This is what interests people and makes them turn the page to find out what happened. Will it embarrass anyone who is alive if it is published? If it does, so what? If it’s true, truth is an absolute defense to defamation.
But there’s this tort called revealing the secrets of another; holding the person in a false light, thus invading her privacy. Suppose you make a public disclosure of private facts? There are three basic elements of the cause of action for invasion of privacy based on public disclosure of private facts: (1) there must be a public disclosure; (2) the facts disclosed must be private facts, rather than public ones; and (3) the matter made public must be one which would be offensive and objectionable to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities. Some courts add a fourth element: the absence of any waiver or privilege. Another way to define this tort is that one who gives publicity to a matter concerning the private life of another is subject to liability to the other for invasion of privacy, if the matter publicized is of a kind that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and is not of legitimate concern to the public. But before your publish, know the law, because some jurisdictions do not recognize a cause of action for the invasion of privacy by disclosure of private facts. If your family history book is sold in many states, however, that may not help you.
Where a defendant discloses private facts to a party or parties who have a natural and proper interest in the private facts, the publicity requirement for the tort of public disclosure of private facts is not met. For example, a loan officer's disclosure of a debtor's credit card debt to the debtor's spouse in an attempt to sell a home equity loan did not satisfy the publicity element of the tort of public disclosure of private facts, where the spouse had a natural and proper interest in knowing about the credit card debt because she was potentially liable for it and because it decreased the value of her interest in the marital property and in the debtor's estate. A complaining attorney's sending of a letter to the Secretary of State regarding an informal admonition of a Public Utilities Commission staff attorney in an attorney disciplinary proceeding and alleging violations of the Governmental Conduct Act did not meet the publicity requirement for a claim of public disclosure of private facts, where any expected disclosure would, at most, be to those with reason to know within the offices of the Secretary of State and Attorney General. Similarly, no public disclosure was found where a woman's husband disclosed information regarding her involvement with one of her coworkers to five management employees of a corporation since all the managers had some job-related connection to either the woman, her husband, or the coworker with whom the woman was having the affair (62 American Jurisprudence 2d, Privacy § 100.
Is the information truly a secret? If everyone knows about it and it was publicized before, then in an action for invasion of privacy based on public disclosure of private facts regarding the plaintiff, the information disclosed must actually be of a private nature. The law does not recognize a right of privacy in connection with that which is already public. It is the unwarranted publicizing of a person's private affairs and activities which furnishes the basis for a cause of action for invasion of privacy. Thus, a cause of action for invasion of privacy based on the public disclosure of private facts must be predicated on the disclosure of facts that are truly "private, secluded, secret," or of a private nature. Furthermore, for a fact to be private, the plaintiffs must demonstrate that they actually expected the disclosed fact to remain private, and that society would recognize this expectation of privacy as reasonable and be willing to respect it.
Facts that have been deemed to be private, under the rule that a cause of action for invasion of privacy based on public disclosure of private facts must be based on the disclosure of facts that are truly private, include an individual's financial dealings or debts, the contents of banking records, evaluation of an individual's work performance, even if favorable, information about a person's health, facts related to an individual's sexual relations, and information about intimate parts of an individual's anatomy. Facts that have been deemed not to be private, include a move or relocation, the fact that an attorney was not licensed, and a post office box number. For every individual, there are some phases of one's life and activities and some facts about oneself that one does not expose to the public eye, but keeps entirely to oneself or at most reveals only to one's family or to close personal friends. Sexual relations, for example, are normally entirely private matters, as are family quarrels, many unpleasant or disgraceful or humiliating illnesses, most intimate personal letters, most details of a person's life in one's home, and some of one's past history that one would rather forget. When these intimate details of a person's life are spread before the public gaze in a manner highly offensive to the ordinary reasonable person, there is an actionable invasion of privacy, unless the matter is one of legitimate public interest.
Although truth may be a defense to an action for libel or defamation, it is not a defense to an action for invasion of privacy based on public disclosure of private facts. The tort of publication of private facts focuses on a very narrow gap in tort law; that is, to provide a remedy for the truthful but damaging dissemination of private facts, which is nonactionable under defamation rules. Public records may not be forever privileged. A matter that was once of public record may be protected as a private fact where disclosure of the information would not be newsworthy. The fact that there has been a lapse of time, even of considerable length, since the event that has made the plaintiff a public figure, does not of itself defeat the authority to give him or her publicity or to renew publicity when it has formerly been given. Past events and activities may still be of legitimate interest to the public, and a narrative reviving recollection of what has happened even many years ago may be both interesting and valuable for purposes of information and education. Such a lapse of time is, however, a factor to be considered, with other facts, in determining whether the publicity goes to unreasonable lengths in revealing facts about one who has resumed the private, lawful, and unexciting life led by the great bulk of the community. This may be true, for example, when there is a disclosure of the present name and identity of a reformed criminal and her new life is utterly ruined by a revelation of a past that she has put behind her. Again, the question is to be determined upon the basis of community standards and mores. Although lapse of time may not impair the authority to give publicity to a public record, the pointing out of the present location and identity of the individual raise a quite different problem.
For example, the freedoms of speech and the press protected a newspaper (could it thus be applied to a family history book) from being civilly liable to an individual on the theory of an invasion of privacy by public disclosure of embarrassing private facts, for the newspaper's accurate publication of a photographic reproduction of a third party's statement implicating the individual in homosexual activity, even though the statement was connected with a criminal prosecution that occurred almost 40 years earlier and there was no apparent significance in having the individual's name appear in the story, where, at the time of publication, the statement was contained in a court record open to the public. In general, the requirement of public disclosure, or "publicity," connotes publicity in the sense of communication to the public in general or to a large number of persons, as distinguished from one individual or a few. The simple disclosure of private information to one other person or a small group is not sufficient to state a claim for the public disclosure of private facts. But, consider, the public disclosure requirement of the tort of public disclosure of private facts may be satisfied by proof that the plaintiff has a special relationship with the "public" to whom information is disclosed. The publicity may be satisfied by disclosing the matter to a small number of persons who have a special relationship with the plaintiff, such as fellow employees, club members, church members, or family. How close in degrees of separation (1st cousin, etc.) is the disgruntled relative? It makes a difference!
Privacy applies to some criminal history. For example, the fact that an event is not wholly private does not mean that an individual has no interest in limiting disclosure or dissemination of information concerning the event. It is reasonable to presume that Congress, in enacting various statutes that limit the disclosure of rap sheets, legislated with an understanding of the professional point of view of the law enforcement profession as evidenced by the policies of states and of the federal Department of Justice, that individual subjects are generally assumed to have a significant privacy interest in their criminal histories. To whatever degree and in whatever connection a person's life has ceased to be private before the publication under consideration has been made, to that extent the protection of the right of privacy is withdrawn. If facts are already known to many people or information is already in the public domain, such facts are not considered "private" and no liability will accrue for their disclosure. There is no liability for publicizing private facts about the plaintiff when the defendant merely gives further publicity to information about the plaintiff that is already public or to what the plaintiff herself leaves open to the public eye. The mere possibility of the release of information at some undefined point in the future for a limited legitimate purpose renders it "public" for all purposes, so as to preclude that information from being "private facts" for purposes of the statutory tort of publication of private facts.
Some information is protected because of its nature, e.g. the law protects individuals from a broad range of embarrassing disclosures, not just disclosures of derogatory information. In addition, the law is designed to protect private information in public records even if it is not embarrassing or of an intimate nature. Information is of a "personal nature," within a state freedom of information act's exception for information of a personal nature, if it reveals intimate or embarrassing details of an individual's private life, as evaluated in terms of the customs, mores, or ordinary views of the community. No right of privacy is invaded when state officials allow or facilitate publication of an official act such as an arrest. A person's alleged criminal involvement may be a matter of public record. When it is, the publication of such "newsworthy" information may not be circumscribed, at least where the newspaper or other article carefully notes the "alleged" nature of the report. A police investigation or an arrest may be a matter of public interest. A felony conviction is a matter of legitimate concern to the public, so disclosure of information relating to the conviction will not support a claim of public disclosure of embarrassing private facts. Similarly, the fact that an individual had entered a guilty plea to a felony charge is a matter within the public domain; therefore, the individual has no legitimate expectation of privacy in that information. However, if the person arrested obtained a “Finding of Factual Innocence” from the court, giving him the right to declare under oath that no arrest occurred, disclose of the arrest is actionable.
So one must use caution when considering writing into family history the criminal record or history of family members. Creating a scene in which a family member recalls the arrest and prosecution of another family member and that affects her choice presently, might be a problem and raise possible litigation. On the other hand, paranoia should not reign. For example, if a “family member” is embarrassed by revelation of a relatives criminal behavior, and the behavior is recent (within the past 10-15 years) and was in the paper, and the concerned family member is a third r fourth cousin of the criminal, you probably don’t have a problem. Write the family and ask if they car. Usually, they won’t care because the truth is the truth. Asking always helps resolve issues. You can also use the disclaimer method of omitting the person’s name or changing it, perhaps omitting the last name, and changing the place and time. That detaches the interest of relatives and helps.
Description can be applied to characters, towns, cities, houses, and a thousand other things. Don’t through a description of a person into one lump of paragraph unless there’s something unique about the person, e.g., she worked as the bearded lady at the carnival and pictures are available. Description applies to both the physical and the mental or emotional, e.g., attitude, personality, mental acuity, intelligence, affect, mood, and the myriad other ways in which the mental or emotional state of a person can be described. Dribble these bits of information out over a chapter or two, showing how the traits affected relationships.
The two examples of scene, dialogue and narrative, set forth above provide example of character building within dialogue and narrative. The hard learned lesson of not quitting on oneself is taught to others. One might think that there would be little call for character development in nonfiction. Before writing or beginning to write your family history work, print out every page and every picture you can find of each person who is going to be included. Oral histories, even those based on hearsay, are valuable. Begin a biography sketch of each person after creating files for each. This seems like a lot of work but, in the writing, it will give you facts and reasonable inferences and implications to work where otherwise you have to write fiction.
We all know what a person’s biographical sketch looks like but, since people love forms, I’ll suggest one:
Biographical Sketch of ____________________
Full name: ______________________________________ Nickname(s): ______________
Birth date:_____________ Death: _______________ Place: _____________________
Cause of death: _____________________________________________________________
Health information: __________________________________________________________
Complexion: _____________ Height: ___________ Weight: ____________
Build: ________________Hair color: ____________ Eye color: ____________________
Hair length/cut: ________________________________________ (diff. ages)
Clothes worn for leisure/work/play – from pictures or memory of others:
Where raised: ______________________________________________________________
Military service: ____________________________________________________________
[Get records – order early because it takes time]
Unit history: [order early]:
Research about others in the place/time/area for relative: ______________________________
Social: Marriage – Divorce – Preferences – research, rumor and facts:
This can fill several pages – include every scrap of intelligence you can find, from whatever source, including research. Did your ancestor like to read? What books and authors? Was there an interest in poetry? In speech, did they prefer formal speech patterns or informal. What were the slang terms of the time/place? Go beyond the routine in your investigation and research about your ancestor and ask high school or college classmates what your relative was all about? What drove her? What was exciting? Maybe she like Mozart and you are able to discover that she liked Shakespearean plays. This evinces a sense of drama and literary knowledge. Consider what diction may have been used; did she have a favorite way of putting things? Was there a prevalence for humility versus narcissism? Did she believe speaking in a soft voice garnered more attentiveness that yelling? Did she prefer a firm request, not to be ignored implicitly, over a demand? Most importantly, strive to find what feels to you like the emotional truth of the personality of your ancestor. Once you have all the knowledge available and are satisfied with your sense of who she was, go for it!
There is so very, very much more that can go into this that I am going to scan pages and include the .pdf file as an accessible document. I have discovered that knowing these quasi-biographies can be extremely useful.
Character traits and creating the emotions of characters: Once you find out as much as possible about the ancestor you intend to write about, use what you can to draw reasonable inferences and rational implications to firm up your sketch of the personality. Emotions are somewhat different from personality traits. The catch is this: It is relatively easy to get a sense of when your ancestor would have, or should have, laughed at something. Let’s face it, in the 1930s there was the Great Depression, in 1914 through 1918, World War I was fought mostly in France and Belgium. World War II began on or about 1 September, 1939 and ended at about 2 September, 1945, depending on who you were and where you were. For the Jewish people subjected to Hitler’s final solution, which began much earlier than 1939, the horror began as early as 1931 for some. American textbooks tend to be written to show the official dates of entry into and ending the wars. The dying began and ended much differently. So use caution when selecting dates to write in a family history because much depends on who, when, and where your ancestors were when their war began and ended. I spend time on this because war had such dramatic affects on the emotions of persons. Some textbooks teach that the North Vietnamese Spring Invasion of 1972 began 31 March 1972. We still had roughly forty-five thousand (45,000) Americans in-country at the time, including me. The invasion began on about 17 March 1972 as the North Vietnamese streamed from the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Quang Tri Province in the north and a few provinces more south. By 28 June 1972 there were a dozen or more N.V.A. tanks within twelve miles of Saigon. I was getting ready to leave,
It’s not just Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, back then called yellow-bricking, cowardice, shell-shock, battle-fatigue, combat fatigue and soldier’s heart for those in the Civil War. But for all of those suffering from whatever the term of the era, it brought disastrous personal consequences. Sometimes immediately; sometimes years later. Some denied it existed then quietly suffered. Others recognized it but the government would not recognize it as a legitimate malady. Others, the ones lost in between, turned to self-medication and became the drug addicts, alcoholics, criminals and wife beaters of the sad history.
Most importantly, the character you develop needs to be believable. They were and should appear to be real and unique people, with credible motivations for their choices and decisions and emotions, displayed or not, which fit the person, time, event, place and situation. Do not get trapped into a recital of facts and nothing but the facts. Use disclaimers, either textually external or internal, to explain to your reader that your memory or information is imperfect but, you are satisfied with its ostensible authenticity, and feel comfortable to proceeding.
Historical characters are created through the vision and intelligence of the writer.
I like to refer to myself as a person who studies human nature. Human nature is fascinating because it explains the theory of everything. Not that theory (by Stephen Hawkings), but the one that reveals who we are, have been, and may become. It might be referred to as those qualities common to us as humankind or normal human behavior, as it is and will always be wonderfully less than perfect. Everything we are is based upon our history, the people that lived to give us life and what we think today and plan or muse about doing next, i.e., the theory of everything. I discovered by studying everything I could find out about my Great Grandfather, James Cass Dutton Jr., is he was a survivor; a man who accomplished what he set his mind to accomplish. This was revealed in a letter about him written by an uncle to my father in 1944. For a reason I have not been able to uncover, the men in my family have never been letter writers (except me – and unless they were away at war).
My uncle Curley wrote a letter seven months before he went MIA complaining about the seeming inability of my father to write to him – an entirely legitimate complaint, I’m sure. But in times of war, letters from home are treasured. When I was in Vietnam, only my mother wrote me, no one else. Well, my estranged and soon-to-be ex-wife wrote my congressman, whining about my not sending her money but I don’t count that one. It was in one of those wartime letters, a letter from uncle Curley to my father, in which Curley told a story about his grandfather, James Cass Dutton Jr. Curley wrote:
“Dad always told us to never quit on ourselves, remember that? One day at about mile sixty-seven on the Ledo Road I was sick, had diarrhea, was hungry, and I was exhausted. I was exhausted to the point I was throwing up. I could hardly stand. But some Japs were reported to be closing on our position from the jungle west of us and I had to help arrange patrols and defense. It was raining, Hard. Not monsoon hard but still coming down in sheets, One of my men, a negro named Billy, handed me his canteen. He said it was fresh water from the last truck that came by. I refused but he insisted. That water was like nectar. It was cold, sweet and tasted better than the best beer. I drained the cup or so in the canteen and thanked him. He shook his head. He said, “No, sir. You’re ready to fall down and you’re still out here making sure we have what we need to survive. Nothing stops you. My men and me will protect you. We ain’t gonna let the damn Japs get you, sir. You keep telling us, “Don’t give up. Don’t give up.” That’s what keeps us going, sir. You never quit so neither will we. His words brought back to me what dad always said and what he told us about grandpa and great grandpa. So it’s become our troop motto, “Never quit.” The boys even got some local native to sew it onto a flag for us. I was never so proud. They gave me one to bring home. …”
The letter is one that brought me to tears. My father had always drummed into me to never quit on myself. “Never quit on yourself. Never let yourself down,” he would say. “You’ll never let your family down either. Or your friends. If you mess up, suck it up and keep going. Don’t be afraid to apologize. Saying you’re sorry is not a sign of weakness but one of strength. It shows you care and that is mature.” I wondered about that. Had he ever failed himself? Was that what he was hinting at? Did he feel like he let Curley down by not writing, then Curley gets killed months later. That had to have been hard on him; living with the guilt of not writing his brother when he was asked to and knowing that writing a letter takes only a few minutes. I found out, too, that if you don’t have talent for something, it doesn’t mean you cannot do it better than most others. When I retired from police work in 1979 and went to work as a law clerk for the Public Defender’s office, I was still going to law school part time at night. For more than three years, including summer classes, I drove two hours from El Centro to San Diego, went to class, then drove back. I started when I was a cop working the graveyard shift. I got back at just before midnight, went to the station and changed into my uniform, and hit the streets. I studied on breaks and when I had a chance to eat. Then at eight in the morning, I’d go home, crash for several hours, get up, study more, and hit the freeway for San Diego. Tired? Oh, yeah. But I got through it.
I was discharged honorably November 15th, 1973, and by February, 1974, had begun full time studies. My goals was to use my G.I. Bill benefits and work through a professional degree, but I had not yet chosen a profession. As I testified in court as a police officer in a variety of cases, I watched and listened to the judges and attorneys closely. I realized that the practice of law was something that looked inviting. I finished my undergraduate degree and began law school. Half way through, I experienced some horrific things while working and retired. The State of California rehabilitation department made a decision to help me finish law school. My G.I. Bill had run out the semester before I retired. In 1981, I graduated with my Juris Doctorate degree and began preparing for the California state bar exam, a three-day grueling challenge that truly tests your ability as a test taker. I passed and was sworn into the practice of law on the 3rd of December, 1982.
My father taught me several memorable lessons before he passed away in 1966. One was a love and respect for knowledge and words. When I erred as a child, my punishment was not a belt or the application of corporal punishment. The first time he used this was after I stayed out longer than told. I sat at the dining table and he brought over a massive tome. My eyes widened as I thought, “He’s going to spank me with that?” He opened it and flipped through the pages. It was volume four of the Funk & Wagnall Encyclopedia and Dictionary.
“I want you to study these two pages. When you’re done, tell me and I want you to explain to me how words in these pages help explain what you did today. Okay?”
I nodded vigorously, happy at not being spanked. I studied the pages. The word that impressed me the most was disobedience. I read that different definitions but settled on one I thought fit the situation best. My vocabulary was not what I use today but, I understood. It meant “refusal to comply.” I told daddy, as I called him then, and he sat down and listened. I tried to defend my actions. I said something like, “I didn’t mean to refuse to comply. I lost track of time. I was just late.”
He smiled. I think he might have seen the future lawyer in me. “Whether you meant not to be on time or not is important but it brings up another rule. Responsibility. When you say you will do something, you are responsible for doing it. That means doing it right and on time. Do you understand?”
I nodded. “Yes, sir. It means it’s my job to be on time. No excuses.”
“That’s right, son. So what can you do to not get in trouble next time?”
I saw an opportunity. “Daddy? Can I have a watch? That way I can tell what time it is and be home on time.”
He burst out laughing. He laughed so hard, he had to take off his glasses to wipe his eyes with his hand. But he nodded and said, “Yes. Let’s go to the store and buy you a watch. Go put your shoes on.” Another rule he had. Don’t wait until tomorrow to do what should be done today. I got my new watch. We went to Walgreens. It was a Timex and had the day and date. Nice. It was like getting a birthday present for getting into trouble. For some reason, when I asked my older brother Jeff, about a few of these things, he had no idea what I was talking about.
The most memorable lesson from my father (he has rules to be followed – unnumbered, but hard fast rules nonetheless) was to never quit on yourself. He showed me the letter my uncle Curley wrote to him and he explained, tears on his cheeks, how guilty the letter made him feel for not living up to his responsibility: loving his brother and supporting him while he was at war. My dad said he always thought Curley would come home. No other outcome ever entered his mind, until the day of the telegram from the War Department. He told me how he carries that guilt with him every day as a reminder to always tell his family he loves them before leaving for work and when he gets home. “It was the greatest lesson.” He said.
I carried it with me from that day forward. I knew it was four or five generation lesson for the men of the family: never, ever, quit on yourself or your family. In basic training, running and then going through the obstacle course – I thought of it – never quit; it gave me an extra drive and confidence. In jump school – on the cross country runs and tower jumps – fear could be overcome because I was not going to quit. I was eager to get out into the air. Seven years of full time work and full time studies through my law degree – Never quit – persevere – I finished; less one wife, but I finished. I discussed it with my brief, Ann Marie, and she adopted it through law school and taking the bar exam, which presented testing challenges for her – but she never quit and was sworn into the State bar and has been a very competent lawyer for decades.
She even ordered personalized license plates that spell out, “NEVER QUIT.” And my younger daughter took up the challenge and go the plate ‘DON’T QUIT.” From Captain James Cass Dutton, Union soldier, Army of Ohio, a prisoner of war, he taught his men the same lesson: Never quit. Keep fighting. At war, you face the greatest obstacle, not being able to fight because of extreme physical and mental injury. Yet you drive on – never stopping, never trying to find a way to fight back. It’s a lesson that applies to most walks of life. It transcends gender, class, nationality, religion, color, and choices. I teach it to my writing classes. Many take it to heart. One of my friends, a former student, took my first-year writing class in 2006. He procrastinated and did not have the final essay done on time. He wanted me to assign him the failing grade and said he would take it again. I refused and insisted he meet with me with his resource materials on the Saturday before the final essay was due. I helped him find his research material after we organized his paper. He had read the book and knew it well. This essay was crucial to passing he course (30% of the course grade). After three and a half hours of tutoring, he had a complete outline, seven scholarly sources (five was the minimum), and was ready to write. He got a B on the essay, which gave him a B+ in the class, and he had never forgotten that lesson.
Never quit. He is in Amsterdam right now as a foreign exchange student. There is no doubt in my mind that he will transcend whatever boundaries are before him and be a successful entrepreneur. Success is the only acceptable outcome. This lesson, taught first in my family, at least (to my knowledge) by a Civil War veteran; in turn learned from his father, has been handed down through the generations. Did it start with an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War? I don’t know but it seems plausible. These are the sort of lessons fathers teach sons – the ones that they know will give the youth strength in the face of adversity; courage in the face of peril; drive in the face of utter exhaustion. It is a secret shared between men, even when they’re twelve years old and going into battle as a Union soldier.
I came back from my second tour in Vietnam, met high school friends who had avoided the war and others who had non-combat duties. I saw an unavoidable difference. I felt generations older. I saw my closest friend from high school in the departure terminal at Ton Son Nhut Air Base. I was clad in a plain Class B uniform. He was in a Class A, having served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army, and had the rank of survival and the ribbons and medals of combat. He humbly commented with a slight smile, “They’ve had me in charge of an NCO Mess for the last few months.” I didn’t know what to say. I felt like an idiot. He had been through so much and seen so much they had to take him off the combat line and put him in a rear echelon job so he would stay sane and survive. The respect I had for him left me speechless. I shook his hand and wished him the best. He was going home and an honorable discharge. The youth I knew was permanently erased but then, I wasn’t who he knew either. We never spoke again.
These observances help you create character in family history. For example, I knew what my best friend was like before Vietnam and I witnessed and knew from experience the changes wrought during and after. In a biography written of him, I would describe the personalities and the changes, as well as why they happened. If I was to include a scene involving him, I would use caution to get it right and show the respect due him. Personal knowledge, experience and details count. To be accurate or truthful to the person, the writer should carefully consider every word.
In a memoir, the memoirist is the protagonist and the work is built from her memories, the person to whom or around whom the story events happened. Memoir is frequently written more for literary purposes than historical. Historical fiction is more like memoir than like historicsl summmary The eloquence of usage, expression, surpasses factual detail. Poetic license is taken and metaphors and similes are useful to elucidate the reader’s imagination. The memoirist respects facts and accuracy but literary expression often takes supremacy to details. The memoirist wonders and muses, without reciting facts. She brings in the call of What if? What does a writer do when an important event is described by three or more different relatives? It’s not feasible to recite all the possible viewpoints. The writer walks on the fine line of creating fiction to resolve differences, using artistic license. In the writing however, the writer can explain to the reader the necessity of the seeming vagaries.
Grandpa said, “That is the way my father would want his gravestone to read. ‘Here lies a loving husband and father. Here lies a man who stood for truth’.” When I heard grandpa say that, I saw aunt Lyndall’s head turn sharply toward him. She told me once that great grandpa’s greatest strength was integrity. I think she disagreed with grandpa’s statement. My dad told me once that great grandma James Cass was the hardest working man he ever knew. He worked in his blacksmith shop until a few months before he died. I wondered if my dad would have said, “Here lies a hard working man.” Which one was right and what would end up engraved on the headstone? He was all these things and more and he would be remembered in all these ways.
Trying to get it just right is, of course, impossible without a recording and even then, memories change. I tried to recall the words I used in a lecture because a student approached me a month afterwards and said the lecture impressed him and he would never forget what I said. It made him think and changed the course of his life; he even changed his major to literature and writing. I wanted to ask, “What did I say? I want to write it down!” He had a significant breakthrough of maturity and consciousness and I had no idea what I said!
Memory is problematic, slippery, always-changing. You recall something one time, you will remember it a little differently the next. You accessed it, the way you thought about it, your feelings, what you remembered, all these things made minute changes and accessed more memory. That is how our brains operate thought, so it is okay. But the truth has to be in there, whether or not a relative disagrees with you. It is your truth, your integrity and honesty on the line; you have to be credible or the story will sound false. Your comfort zone with truth is what counts. Your readers’ comfort zone with believing you is what will sell your book. Memoir with built in disclaimer is one way to tackle the truth from within your story. In Bill Roorback’s Writing Life Stories, he gives Gow Farris’ response to an assignment:
I don’t remember what we thought we’d do at Krock’s store for money. I don’t remember being in the store. The store I remember all right. Large jars of candy. Licorice, is the one I remember. And Mr. Krock, I remember him, … He was sad, now I see. Or maybe depressed. That may have been the time we stole. Anyway, … (Roorback 25).
The disclaimer is in the story: “don’t remember”, “remember all right”, “He was sad, now I see”, “That may have been the time…”, are all indications of how faulty memory can be but the story is no less believable.
Characters, like some people, are forgetful, so is the “I” in the memoir or personal essay. In family history, much of what you write, with or without disclaimers, is going to be taken as the truth. Character traits can be surmised or looked up. If you know someone is or was passive – aggressive, you can look up the mood disorder in a book and use those criteria to develop the character. The person may not have suffered it as a disorder, however, so your assumption that all the traits are applicable is in error. If you have the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual for Psychiatrists, 4th ed., Text Revised (DSM IV-TR), you can get all the formal and some informal language fro it. Or there is Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D.’s The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, which recaptures much of what is in the DSM-IV TR, with short sample os common language used for description. Then there the writers who have books that teach how to create traits and emotions: Ann Hood, Creating Character Emotions, and Nacy Kree, Dynamic Characters. These help you learn to write about character traits but nothing but the truth will tell you what sort of person your relative or ancestor was when she was alive. With memoir and family history writing, it is usually a combination of the two that allow you to develop a real characterized person.
The scenes in a family history work would seem to come naturally. Scenes are not setting. But they don’t come naturally because, depending upon the temporal distance of the scene, the accuracy pf the facts discovered from your investigation becomes more important. You need to have the correct flora and fauna, weather, . Few houses and other buildings built in the 18th and 19th centuries are standing. Some courthouses, hotels, some buildings on the east coast, but none many residences. They were removed for renovation and new construction. You will usually have to make do with pictures, if you have those, or through investigation, find similar housing from that era and visit it. But a scene is not made merely from a white clapboard house with a small front porch, lit at night from a single bare overheard light bulb. It’s also the tiny details that furnish the home, the deer red glassware that grandma Dutton had. Who got that after she passed away? All of that is wonderful detail but it is setting. The deep red translucent plates might also be part of her character, if used well. And as a result can be part of a scene.
A scene is one connected and sequential action, together with its embedded description and background material. It happens jst as if the reader is watching and listening to it happen. Built on talk and action, it's dramatized to show rather than tell and summarize. Think of it as like a little, idependent story; some short stories are one scene. A scene is not random action. It begins where and when it begins; not dependent upon the previous scene unless the scene is in the middle of a chapter. A chapter may dramatically end with the conflict scene suspended, unresolved, and leaving the reader dangling. The first scene in the next chapter may begin or continue the sub-plot of a new character. A scene can convey many things: moods, attitudes, a sense of place and time, anticipation, a reflection of something in the past. Be sure the scene coneys information related to the scene's point for being; if a sentence or fact is irrelevant, take it out. When the story is finished, each scene should connect with each other as the scenes relate to specific events or characters, regardless of when the scenes appear in the story. Scenes can be long or short; a paragraph or three or four pages or a dozen pages. Creating scenes means finding a way for your story to reveal itself, rather than ways for you to tell it.
Scenes are going to comprise specific stages in which your major character's motivations are enacted against opposition, internal or external or both. Get the action going! Show what kind of scene is occurring. Let your character's generate unqique motives, thoughts, dreams, and choices. Engage the reader's interest in imagining the scene as it takes place, shifting and changing, hurting and feeling good, relief and happiness, bitterness and elation, physical injury and ignoring the pain to save another. In family history, family knows that every one of us is good and bad, to some degree, at diffferent point in our lives. The perfect person doesn't exist and never has, even biblically. Trust is challenged by temptation. Loyalty is tried by persuasion. Love is conflicted with lust. Clarity of thought is juxtaposed with confusion. Confusion is clarified with thought and choices.These things are what make us people - let them occur in your ancestors.
A scene begins when grandpa walks into the dining room carrying the Thanksgiving Day turkey, hot from the oven, stuffed with grandma’s secret apple-walnut and sausage stuffing mix, and smelling better than any turkey in the world. Scene is immediate, this moment and what you feel, smell, fear, see and sense. A scene illuminates a moment in life that can never again exist except in vivid writing. A scene begins a short part of a story that becomes conflicted somehow and when the resolution appears or nears, the scene ends. If you read a lot and are willing to study how your favorite writers create scenes, you can identify when they begin and end scenes. There is no better training than studying the methods of multiple others.
Examples exist in the millions outside this writing. For family history, which is historical creative nonfiction, the writer must use care to take the reader into a time that the reader cannot live, but give her an opportunity to catch a glimpse of what it was like.
Metaphor, Meaning and Mindfulness.
Jorge Luis Borges, a well known Argentinean author, said that, “[c]ensorship is the mother of metaphor.” I have a few friends in a writing group who are poets/ I envy their ability to come up with beautiful metaphors for some facts that I find some difficulty writing about. Metaphor can be very helpful in description or dialogical discussion of another character. I love Annie Dillard’s use of metaphor and simile in her works. Why not just say what you mean? Metaphor and simile can create impressions of a person that go beyond mere description of physicality or personality or mood. The devices can be used to soften the reader’s impression of a family member. Sometimes writers, especially students, identify or empathize with a person and seek meaning in that comparison to understand their unique identity, Student writers are like flower buds, identifying with a bud that will open into a beautiful blossom.
Using the examples written by other writers doesn’t help teach a writer how to characterize or describe with metaphor or simile. For example, using the Andersonville prison camp example above to create a metaphor, a soldier and fellow prisoner might say, “The captain was our Stonewall Jackson, never giving up on his men.” In despair, starving and freezing, an inmate soldier might create a simile and say, “Every day I wake up and realize I ain’t dead, that slop they give us for breakfast is like ham and eggs with hot coffee.” How much and when you use metaphors, similes, or any other device in historical family nonfiction is up to you. You don’t need literary devices to tell a story someone will enjoy reading. Sometimes they please certain readers but many want historical family nonfiction to tell the stories of ancestors in simple, accurate ways.
William Bradley, in “The Ethical Exhibitionist’s Agenda: Honesty and Fairness in Creative Nonfiction,” a very competently written article, said, “Many have dismissed the ‘fourth genre’ … as a form for the narcissistic and self-involved. … [C]ritics such as William Grimes complain that the genre is ‘so inclusive that it’s almost impossible ro imagine which life experiences do not qualify as memoir material’… [and] we reject the arrogant sense of superiority that leads a critic to suggest that the genre’s inclusiveness is somehow a weakness” (Bradley 203). Family history falls into many categories of writing. The study of historical fiction helps one see the bigger picture involved in writing family history – not for its fictive side, but for its creativeness. Definitions of the genre are elusive, but what does it matter? Must we have a clear definition of an area of creativity that involves everything from poetry, dramatic prose, to art? Bradley cited Stephen Minot for his effort to “…provide a clear definition of the genre: ‘Many readers (and even more writers) are needlessly confused about how to define this genre. It’s simpler than one might think. Literary nonfiction is distinguished by three basic characteristics: It is based on actual events, characters, and places; it is written with a special concern for language; and it tends to be more informal and personal that other types of nonfiction writing’ (Bradley 204). This attempt raises as many questions, perhaps more, than it lays to rest.
Fern Kupfer, a memoirist, said it is “… the authority of truth, anyway, that makes the memoir attractive to readers (Bradley 204). Bradley does not offer a claimed definition that he argues is pure and descriptive, rather, he relies n the words of others, whose words help us understand the genre and, I think this is all that we require. He cites Vivian Gornick for her comment that “ ‘ Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recitation of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand’ “ (Bradley 205). Traditional literary devices allow the nonfiction author to probe her world in detail while presenting a unique point of view. Memory impulsively reaches out its arms and embraces imagination. It isn’t a lit, but an act of necessity and reflection. It can present its story and reflect and consider the meaning of the story. It is a peculiarly open form, inviting broken and incomplete images, half-recollected fragments, all of the mass (and mess) of detail. It offers to shape this confusion – and in shaping, of course it necessarily creates a work of art, not a legal document (Bradley 205, citing Hampl, 265-66). The key components here seem to be the authenticity of the event as perceived by the reader, combined with the earnest best efforts of the writer to take the many fragments and make them into a whole story. Memory is inherently unreliable and thus the written truth based upon fragments of memory is inherently unreliable, but wit the caveat that the writer will make every reasonable effort to tell the story as truthfully as humanly possible.
Going for the “emotional truth” (Mimi Schwartz – Bradley 206), is what the reader desires. Schwartz argues to her writing students and writers that fictive leeway is a necessity, as it is, to string together actual facts in a way that makes the resulting emotional story make sense. The writer must chose carefully whom and what she wishes to write about. Consciously, e.g., intentionally, changing the facts of an event (not as disclaimer but in telling the story) is not an innocent act but one of factual and perhaps emotional manipulation. If changed at the request of those factually involved, to protect them in some way, one may show an honorable motivation at the risk of being accused of lying, an attack made by someone with an agenda to harm the person or persons protected. Of course, this assumes the complainer can find a platform. If facts are changed for self-aggrandizement, the writer has chosen to lay aside the emotional and factual truth to pad her credibility, which in turn may be harmed. Wise choices should be made.
A family history is not intended to be a definitive reality, although some may take it as such. The writer should cite sources as much as possible or reasonable. Where fiction techniques are utilized, such use should be made apparent to the reader so that the reader can make a choice. Did the dialogue between Civil War Union Army Privates Dutton and MacIntosh take place? I have no idea – probably not. Under the circumstances, however, facing starvation, endless captivity, freezing weather, the best in soldiers seem to come out and they use it to help each other. As a veteran, I witnessed such things, and the acts were always done to help one’s brother at arms. The stories told by the Hanoi Hilton Prisoners-of-War speak to the importance of such conduct. The stories told by former POWs of the Japanese, the Germans, and others, speak alike. The conversation certainly could have happened under the circumstances. It is a lesson handed down from man to man in my family.
I read the letter from brother to brother and treasure it. It refers to the generations before teaching the lesson. My father talked to me about it when I was but twelve. I came to understand it as he lay dying from the cancer eating away at him. He worked as long as he could. There was no life insurance. Life was very hard on my mother, who had five more young ones to raise. She overcame the obstacles and did a wonderful job. I don’t know if he ever spoke with my two older brothers about it. I knew the draft was going to envelop my life so I voluntarily enlisted. Upon doing so, I directed the finance office to send 50% of my net pay home to my mother in the form of an allotment. I know it helped. I don’t know what my older brothers did – I just don’t know and will never ask. It’s none of my business. Do I regret any of the things I did – not any I can think of. I know you should ask forgiveness of those you harmed or did wrong before dying. It’s not that I was perfect – I wasn’t, I’m sure. But did I do any harm? No. Does someone else think I did harm? I don’t know. Nothing would surprise me. My conscience is free, I know some of my high school classmates did things they should regret.
Do I need to reconcile the known with the unknown to write a family history? Not from my perspective. If siblings or others contact me and suggest or demand that I handle a certain event a certain way, treat the request with respect and consideration for their feelings. Significant strains upon familial relations can be brought by the publishing of a personal essay, memoir or family history. If you give in and choose not to use a story or choose to modify it, I suggest not letting the decision both you too much. These familial discussions or arguments have existed for time immemorial and will continue to exist. Do your best but know that you cannot satisfy everyone.
As you organize your documents, pictures and stories, look for a common theme. There may be more than one. Often, family historians discover that a common theme is available for each generation. Sometimes, the theme is passed from one generation to another. When you search for a theme, think of similarities, commonalities, links between people and families, or common interests. Write, call, text or e-mail your relatives and send them a list of questions you want answered. Tell them you are writing a family history book and they will want to respond to ensure the record is straight, in-so-far as they are concerned. They may even tell you how another person feels about something and argue why that is right or wrong.
Search through the daily newspapers for the news and market of the day. Details are important to include but don't overwhelm your reader with a lot of meaningless details. Demonstrating what a private in the Army earned per month (or annually) in 1912 can be interesting when you compare it to 1917-1918 (WW I), 1941-1946 (WW II), 1952-55 (Korea), 1961-1975 (Vietnam) and other wars. The country mobilized to a war time economy for WW II but did not seem to support the political agenda of the Vietnam War. The Farmer's Almanac for different years will tell you a lot about the economy. How was your family affected by the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, the enactment of Social Security, the Hippie culture, the British Invasion (Beatles, etc., and music)? Did a particular family member or members come forward during hard times and shine as the one to whom all others turned for answers, help, or consolation?
As you write the story of a generation, weave into it the occurrences that affected their lives. For example, musical talents, singers, movie stars, politicians, the economy, novels, and the biographies of famous people who lived in that generation. How did deaths affect the generation? Was there an epidemic or pandemic during their lives? Were certain medicines discovered? What happened that caused a major change in their lives? Some decades were encumbered with multiple major events - how did all those events affect the lives of the generations living then? The Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King Jr., Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix? What facts or appearances connect one generation with another?
 College English. Vol. 70, No. 2. November, 2007.
 California State University, San Marcos (CSUSM), Literature & Writing Studies, GEW Program, 333 South Twin Oaks Valley Road, San Marcos, CA 92096.