Most of us who have grown up in more-or-less functional extended families have had access to family stories from a variety of sources. We may have heard the same story retold dozens of times by the same person, etching it deep in our memory. We may have even retold the story ourselves without considering whether it was true or even plausible.
The question of truth often comes up when writing a personal history. If you have doubts about the accuracy of a long-standing family story, or if conflicting versions of the same story are being promulgated, what do you do?
If some of these “hand-me-down stories” will be part of your project, it will be up to you to evaluate their worthiness. If you have any doubts about their accuracy, check them out. Check dates and facts from trusted sources, if possible. Ask others who may have personal knowledge of the situation for their views. It’s not unusual for eyewitnesses to the same event to come away with different views of what happened. You may end up with a hybrid version of the original, or you may choose to use the original with some sort of disclaimer. Remember, when you put your version of the story in black and white, it may very well become your family’s “official” version of the event.
Besides the issue of “whose truth?,” you may also face the question of “how much truth?” in your project. Do you need to tell all, or will a bare-bones explanation suffice? While this is a personal decision, keep in mind that this is your project and that you don’t have to write anything you don’t want to write. It’s possible to make a point without revealing every detail about what led up to that point.
The bottom line: Be as honest as you can, be clear in your retelling and explanations and respect your readers enough to give them what they need to know to make sense of your story. You owe them nothing less. Or nothing more.
Tomorrow: Your work life.
This is Lesson No. 12 of a mini-course on how to write a personal history. The course will continue throughout May, which is Personal History Month. To get future lessons delivered to you, you may subscribe to our RSS feed or get e-mail delivery to your inbox. It’s easy. Details can be found in the column to the left of this post.