Welcome to Writing Prompt Pit Stop! Here we are, another Wednesday and another prompt to hopefully get your pen gliding or your keyboard humming. This week’s prompt is “Shaking Your Family Tree.” I’ve been working for a little over a year on a manuscript that I’m calling my “poetry memoir” until I come up with a title. My poems focus on my experiences growing up an only child, and on my growing up during the 1960s and 1970s when the world, and pop culture, was going through some major changes. In addition, a few of those poems focus on grandparents, and on some ancestors that I only know through stories my grandparents shared with me.
I was really close to my grandma that I called “mom,” and because of her I was instilled with a real love of not only family history, but of history in general. It’s no big surprise, then, that one of my favorite shows is Who Do You Think You Are? which combines a lot of both, and I was disappointed when it was canceled in 2012. However, I found out last week that TLC picked the show up and is running new episodes, so now I can DVR those shows and watch them in between writing and grading. If you enjoy genealogy/history at all, I recommend this show. There is also a similar show, Finding Your Roots, on PBS with Henry Louis Gates.
A few examples of my poems that I’m including in my “poetry memoir” are “Bird Lessons,” which appeared in Poised in Flight (Kind of a Hurricane Press, 2013), and “Politics, 1960” that appeared in the March 2013, family-themed, issue of cahoodaloodaling.
I find that mining not only my own life, but researching, and finding, ancestors is an untapped goldmine of ideas to write about – especially if you feel you are tapped out on some days.
So with this week’s prompt, I’m encouraging you to explore your own family history. Yes, you may know everything you want to know about your immediate family (and sometimes they’re a goldmine to write about!) but I’m urging you to go back further, a few generations or more. Go back and have a “conversation” with a long lost relative, or visit a country or region that you had no idea that your family came from. With that idea in mind, here’s your sixth prompt (I lost count…and this really is the sixth instead of the fifth! I’m a writer, not a mathematician! LOL!):
“Shaking Your Family Tree”
1) Start with a living relative, take a daybook, and interview them about your family’s history. If you’re lucky, you have a genealogy buff already in the family that’s done some leg work and can give you some concrete answers.
Ask them the broad questions first such as: Where is our family from? What did great-grandpa, etc., do for a living? Were they in any wars? Where did they first live when they immigrated to America? Etc. Then you can think of more specific questions as you go along, or maybe you’ve always wondered about something, or someone, in your family and it’s your chance to ask.
2) Whether you have a family member to go to or not, it’s always good to go to a local library and see if you can discover any information there, perhaps through microfilms or by the digitized print media from the past. Again, take good notes (You may even discover other ideas to write about while doing this activity).
3) Go on ancestry.com and utilize the free access to their files. They sometimes even have a 14-day free trial that gives you full capabilities of their site. You can get on there and create a family tree. It’s easy to do, and you can track ancestors as far back as you can go. As always, don’t forget to write down notes, dates, etc., as you go along.
I’ve had relatives that have contacted me because of the family tree that I built, which has opened up lines of communication I never had before, and I even had one send photos of my grandfather that died long before I was born – photos that my family had never seen. So there are perks besides getting more writing done!
4) Once you’ve gathered information you’re ready to write – a lot. Take one or two of your ancestors and create a character profile for them to include in your writing. Or discover one of the places your ancestors came from and make that a setting in your writing. You may find 1000s of ancestors or characters, or names of towns in Ireland, England, or elsewhere that could give you volumes of writing possibilities.
Depending on your writing preference, you may find real stories/histories surrounding your ancestors and write poems or essays that stick with the memoir/creative nonfiction genre, or you might utilize the info you find and twist it to make a fine piece of flash fiction, a short story, or even a 10-min play. What you do with your new-found info is totally up to you.
As I’ve stated before the main thing is to get as much imagery and detail into your creative writing as possible. And, don’t forget to revise – it is the true craft of writing.
As with all writing, it should be fun! If you ever want to share any successes or attempts that you get from these prompts, don’t hesitate to let me know. You can contact me here.
Look for another prompt next Wednesday! Until then, keep writing!