Every family has them: stories of Great-Uncle Harold’s time in the trenches of WWI, Grampa’s side trip into bootlegging during Prohibition, Aunt Helen’s wanderlust that took her around the globe twice, Grandma’s ground-breaking work as the first female at Lockheed Aeronautics during WWII. These are the stories that may only get trotted out once a year or so, maybe at Christmas or the infrequent family reunion, but otherwise stay hidden away in shoeboxes at the back of closets or in the dimly-lit corners of an oldster’s mind.
And very often, the story and its teller are, eventually, lost for all time. Why? Because the stories don’t get written down.
There’s a Mandinka proverb that says every time an old person dies, it’s as if a library has burnt down.
I was lucky. My dad wrote his autobiography over the last 20 years of his life. After he died, I converted the typed pages to digital, added family photos, and published his story. I didn’t care if I sold a single copy; I just wanted the book out there. Surprisingly, I have sold quite a few, but that’s not even the point. The point is, his story will never die. It lives on. And I can’t tell you what a treasure trove it is for my family.
So a few years back on Veteran’s Day, I was thinking about my aunt who was an Army nurse during WWII and was taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Philippines. I had heard this much of the story all my life, but very few details. I began to do some research to see if I could find out more about it; hard to do, as she and all her generation are gone. I was shocked to find out that the Wisconsin Historical Society (she was from WI) had in their possession two scrapbooks that were created by my grandmother, filled to overflowing with letters, telegrams, news clippings, and photos of my aunt’s time in the service. It not only chronicled the events of her capture and imprisonment, it also told the story of my grandmother’s tireless efforts to find out information about her daughter and bring comfort in any way she could. It was a story of two women on opposite sides of the earth, each in their own way striving to push through extremely difficult times.
And it was stuck in a drawer in a back room.
I knew the story deserved to be told. And I knew I was the only one to do it. There are other writers in my family, but none that devote as much time to it as I do. So even though I’m a novelist by choice, it was time for me to write non-fiction.
I’m glad I did. Again, I didn’t care if the book sold at all; I just wanted the story out there. Surprisingly, it has touched a lot of people, won awards, was even featured in a TV documentary on Wisconsin’s military history. And it got me to thinking: how many stories are there like this, that never get told, that never see the light of day? A ton, I’m sure. And I think that most people believe publishing is way beyond their reach, but here’s the irony. It’s not. It’s fully accessible in our time. Okay, the writing part is never easy and that still has to be done, but the publishing? That’s a breeze. Using CreateSpace, you can do it for about $10, the cost of a proof book and shipping. Really, I mean it. Ten bucks. Indies Unlimited has more than enough information and tutorials in their archives to get you started.
I would encourage anyone — EVERYone — who has family stories to write them down. Get them out there! I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised, as I was, how they can touch people well beyond the confines of your family. Because these are not just family stories.
They are human stories.
And they deserve to be told.
Originally published by Indies Unlimited on 4/22/12.