A Family History Writing Workshop


August 14, 2012

David McConkey

I am fortunate to be attending one of Charley Kempthorne’s family history writing workshops. About 30 of us had signed up in advance and we show up on a warm August morning at the public library in Brandon, Manitoba. (Originally limited to 15, it had been quickly oversubscribed, so the number was expanded.)

We are of an experienced, mature age. Apparently typically, the group is 90% women. 

For the next two hours, Charley entertains and encourages us with his wit and wisdom. When we aren’t laughing, we are learning, reflecting . . . and writing.

Whereas a memoir is the story of one individual, a family history is the story of a group. Charley notes the importance of this genre of writing: for the wider community, yes, but mostly for one’s own family. Your descendants will want to hear your family’s story; if you don’t write it down, they won’t have that story.

A big stumbling block for most people is a fear of making mistakes. Charley, a former teacher, explains that this reticence is a leftover of the school’s emphasis on correctness. Charley makes the comment that most people – even those who attend his workshops – are so afraid of making a mistake that they will not write a single line. I wonder if Charley says this as a kind of reverse psychology, as a way to instill a challenge in us. 

Like any narrative, a family history is a series of scenes – much like a movie. At one point, Charley asks us to recall one such scene from our own family history, and gives us 20 minutes to write it down. He then invites each of us in turn to read aloud what we have just written. (Anyone who feels at all reluctant can simply pass.)

As we go around the room, scene descriptions come tumbling out. I sense we are all astounded at how articulate a group of ordinary people can be. The scenes range from the everyday to the unusual to the really quite moving. It is easy to imagine how such scenes could grow into full-fledged family histories.

Charley is overflowing with ideas, tips, and suggestions; he has been doing this since 1976. From his home in Kansas, he travels the U.S. and Canada leading hundreds of workshops. As well, he has written a book, For All Time: A Complete Guide to Writing Your Family History. He puts out a regular interactive newsletter, LifeStory. To enhance his work, he has established the LifeStory Institute.

Some of his specific suggestions for aspiring family historians:
  • Don’t get bogged down staring at a blank piece of paper. To spark ideas, draw a picture of the house you grew up in, and note whatever remembrances come to mind. Or: look at old photographs, and add captions.
  • Write even a small amount daily. 500 words a day could actually produce a couple of books in a year!
  • Don’t think, write! As Charley says, “The point is not to write well, but to write at all.”
  • Forget about quality. "Don’t write your last draft first."
  • Always carry around a small notebook to jot down thoughts at any time.
  • Starting is important. Pick a specific thing and write about it: something small could end up becoming very significant.
We leave the workshop both informed and inspired. I have a hunch that at least some of us will go on to write something.

After all, we already have written one scene.





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