A couple of years ago, I wrote and self-published a family history of sorts. I say “of sorts” because the focus is on my parents, their siblings, and my grandparents. Mention is made of great grandparents, but it’s skimpy and not that interesting, not because those ancestors were boring but rather because most of the folks who knew them were deceased. With no original sources, I had little to work with.
And when I say, “I wrote,” that’s only partly accurate. Two of my siblings contributed their life events following high school until the present, and all I had to do was plop their documents into the narrative in the right places. After proofreading about fourteen times, I ordered a few copies and immediately saw some pesky errors. Alas, I tried again…and then again to get things just right, including a few extra photos and a snapshot of my parents’ marriage license. Oh, and there was this love note written from John to Margie on a packet of matches that I felt inspired to add.
All that to say, the undertaking was a labor of love, and when I was done, I was Done with a capital D.
But now, well now, I’m thinking of either changing it up or writing a totally new book, this one more of a memoir. The impetus comes from Cinelle Barnes, a memoirist, essayist, and educator from Manila. Her books include Monsoon Mansion, Malaya: Essays on Freedom, and A Measure of Belonging. I had the opportunity to hear Cinelle speak at the South Carolina Writers Association annual conference Saturday, and her words touched me deeply and spurred me to action.
Cinelle’s work is about discovery, discovery about characters with desires that are often contradictory. What does each character want, and how do those desires change over time? Who or what is standing in the way of a character getting those desires met? Honesty, I never thought of those questions while pecking out my family history. It was more like this happened and then this and then that. The characters, my relatives, seem one dimensional and flat, not the living, breathing, laughing, sobbing, skipping, dancing, hopeful people they were.
The entire session was helpful, and yet what tugs at me today are six people, no more and no less, that Cinelle told her listeners to choose—the individuals who know things you don’t know, those who will inform you and keep you writing. As I listened, I wondered why I hadn’t asked my mother more questions when I had the chance. I also thought of a great grandmother who died before I was born; she haunts me. When I look into her eyes in the few photographs I have (that’s her wearing the white blouse in the photograph below), I feel a bond, a longing to know this person. What does she want to tell me?
Interestingly, as I thought of my six people, I thought of my three siblings and my three children first, not Minnie Laney Padgett, a woman whose life has fascinated me since I first saw a tombstone for “Darling Daughter Lillie,” child of Sidney and Minnie L. Padgett who died at five years old. But then Cinelle said something that I latched onto: one or several of your six people could be a deceased person. Ghosts are part of her story, and they’re part of mine, too. And yours. Should I add Lillie, the five-year-old child who died, to my list, or just stick with her mother Minnie? But then, I can’t leave out my sweet mama. Decisions, decisions.
I’m still working on my list of six. Their selection is important since these six people will keep me writing. What is Minnie longing to say? What’s something she wants me to know? Who would your list of six include?