Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"I" and "we" in genealogy writing

This year's Ohio Genealogical Society conference in Cincinnati sparked some good discussions, including one that came out of Ohio Genealogy News editor Sunny McClellan Morton's Friday morning talk. Like many of us, she's trying to encourage new writers to take up the pen or word processor as the case may be.

I admit to being a bit surprised that there was anything to discuss. There are many kinds of good genealogical writing, and the first person can be effectively wielded in most of them.

. . . Except at the top of the pyramid. In the five most scholarly magazines -- NEHGR, NGSQ, NYGBR, TAG, and The Genealogist -- the first person singular or plural is out of bounds, I think reasonably so. The focus there should be on the methods, the records, and the people being researched -- not on the researcher's false trails and travails. Having journals like this is one of many factors that will make genealogy more respectable as an intellectual endeavor and not just a harmless obsession of geezers. Also, once you get the hang of it, leaving yourself out of the picture actually makes it easier to tell one story, without having to shift back and forth from the story of the past to the story of your attempt to reclaim the past. Scholarly accounts deliberately suppress process details because the logic of proof is often very different from the travelogue of discovery.

But this is not the only way to tell these stories, and it is not always even the best way. For one thing, up-and-coming researchers have a natural hunger for accounts of how it went. A research find can look very different in the heat of battle (or more likely in the courthouse basement) than it does in a polished article. And nothing prevents such accounts from being well-written and well-documented.

So, pretty much everywhere else -- in commercial popular magazines, in trade publications (APG Quarterly), and in quality mid-level publications (such as NGS Magazine, Ohio Genealogy News, and many state publications) -- I would expect good editors to be open to the possibility of using first person to tell a solid genealogical story. (I blogged about a couple here; Sunny has been publishing research travelogues under the heading "Genealogy Journeys" in OGN.)

Many people may find it more natural to write in the first person at first, and I'm in favor of any approach that will get more of us writing (as opposed to dying with file cabinets full of uncommunicated discoveries). But writing WELL in the first person is much harder than it looks, for at least three reasons:

(1) All storytelling and all writing is about selection, and when you write about your own experience you have to do all the selection. You know too much. (In an interview-based article, for instance, both the interviewee and the interviewer filter the direct experience, so that the result of the interview has already been winnowed down considerably from the raw experience, making it easier to craft a readable narrative out of it.) It can be hard to see the forest because you know so much about each individual tree -- but if you tell all, the reader will quit rather than figure it out.

(2) First person can tempt us into careless writing. As beginners we often rely too much on adjectives and adverbs, and on general ones at that. First-person may make it harder to realize that we are emoting vaguely, rather than painting a clear picture.

(3) First person poses a special technical problem in genealogy. We then have at least two separate narratives going: our own research chronology, AND the life we are researching. It takes considerable skill and experience to keep both stories on track, separate, and memorable.

These caveats aside, I think first person opens realms of possibility. Some of the most memorable genealogy or family history books I have ever read use it: Leonard Todd's Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave; Martha Hodes's The Sea Captain's Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century; and (in a somewhat different and slightly less documented vein) Ian Frazier's Family. I found them impossible to put down, and well worth rereading and learning from. It's true, these are world-class writers. Few if any of us can use the first-person tool as well as they do, but that is no reason to banish it altogether from our toolbox.

Harold Henderson, "'I' and 'we' in genealogy writing," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 15 May 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


ACProctor said...
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ACProctor said...

Doesn't it simply come down to a question of context Harold? For instance, if I were writing an autobiography then it would be pretty difficult without any first-person references.

Writing about an academic subject, or even the lives of your ancestors, can be done without first-person references, but not so if you're presenting a blow-by-blow account of how you uncovered their story.

Geolover said...

So glad you mentioned Todd's _Carolina Clay_, a riveting tale. Here and elsewhere, how much came to be hidden is a significant part of the story, and the discovery-trail is part of the history.

Jana Last said...

I want you to know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

Have a great weekend!

Harold said...

Thank you, Jana! Yes, A.C., that is what I was trying to say, more briefly put.

L. Hedgecock said...

Interesting topic. I like your take on the subject.

Laura Hedgecock