The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted your interest in your own family’s history?
Annette Gendler (AG): Two things: When I fell in love with a Jewish man in post-WWII Germany, I knew family history was repeating itself because my great-aunt had been married to a Jew in Czechoslovakia before the war, a marriage that put the entire extended family in mortal danger once the Nazis came to power. So I went on a quest to figure out what had happened. Secondly, as I was reading through my grandfather’s memoirs to piece together that old love story, I noticed that he had had something I never had: a real homeland. He lost that homeland when my grandparents and father were expelled from Czechoslovakia after the war, along with pretty much every one of German heritage. That loss profoundly changed who the next generation was going to be. It made it possible for my dad, who was 12 at the end of the war, to eventually ship off to graduate school in America and marry an American. My siblings and I grew up in the Munich area, where we had no close family, and where our family did not come from. We grew up between two countries, speaking English and German, with a grandmother who cooked Bohemian food, and a mother who made pizza and meatballs and spaghetti.
Once I realized how profoundly my family’s history affected who I am, I felt it was important to retrace the story and put it together.
TWM: What prompted you to write How to Write Compelling Stories from Family History?
AG: I got one too many question about whether I had any materials from my workshop “Shaping Family History into Compelling Stories.” I began teaching that workshop after my memoir Jumping Over Shadows came out in 2017, sharing what I had learned about developing a narrative from artifacts such as letters and official documents. That workshop has always been very popular, and so it was clear that a book like How to Write Compelling Stories from Family History would fill a market need.
TWM: Since you’ve been teaching this subject for a long time, what do you think are the three toughest challenges in writing compelling stories from family history?
- Focusing on stories that are interesting and relevant to the next generation
- Figuring out where to start
- Dealing with uncomfortable truths and taboos
TWM: Is there a stumbling block that most writers of family story encounter?
AG: It is easy to get lost in a thicket of tangents. Everything is so connected when you’re writing about family that it is challenging to filter out one story line and stick to it. This is why focusing on writing about an object is such a useful tool.
TWM: What are the pros and cons of writing memoir vs. fiction based on family story?
AG: With fiction based on a true story, the writer has more leeway to create a good story. Facts can be fudged, and scenes can be made up. For the family, however, a fictional account remains unsatisfactory because it always begs the question of what is made up and what isn’t. With memoir the writer has to stick with what actually happened. Nevertheless the story will be curtailed by his or her point-of-view and some stuff has to be omitted in order for the storyline to work. No piece of writing can ever do justice to life. A story is always a construct but I firmly believe it is better to have a story than no story at all.
TWM: How can objects/heirlooms/memorabilia help?
AG: Writing about one particular inherited object can be tremendously helpful because the object provides the necessary focus. For example, all kinds of family facts and anecdotes can be attached to an inherited tea cart. Writing the story of that tea cart will yield a succinct portrait of a family, or at least some of its characters.
TWM: You made a really interesting comment: “[family] reactions are indicative of the relationship you have with the person you are writing about” (95). Could you say more about that?
AG: I have witnessed, more than once, and experienced myself, that if you have a shaky relationship with someone, writing about that person and then sharing that writing is not going to improve that relationship. In fact, it could damage it further. On the other hand, a good relationship will not be harmed and is quite often deepened by writing.
TWM: What do you think are the triumphs of writing family story?
AG: Writing my family’s story helped me understand myself better because I learned more about who the people were who came before me and how their experiences shaped who they were and thus shaped who I was going to become.
We humans, if we are at least somewhat introspective, spend a lifetime trying to understand ourselves. Family stories are a crucial component of understanding who we are, and if they are written down, they can be passed on and reinterpreted. Oral history is well and good, but as we all know, stories get distorted when they pass from one person to the next. A written story preserves the writer’s point of view.
A written family story is also a connector. It connects one generation to the next, and it gives whoever will read it the opportunity to find a sense of connection and belonging. In my opinion, a written family story is a priceless gift that will keep on giving.
TWM: How should one get started?
AG: Start small, with something easy. Write down one story a relative told you, or write about an heirloom you cherish. Once you begin writing, you will find yourself on all kinds of journeys. They happen only when you have begun writing. Jot down whatever ideas and tangents occur to you, but remain focused on your one story. Share your draft and get input, then rework the story until you feel it is the best it can be. Then write the next small story. Eventually a bunch of small stories will create a wonderful mosaic of your family history but each story can also be shared and published on its own. Approaching writing family history as one story after another is much easier than tackling a big book project.
TWM: How has your MFA helped you write memoir/family story?
AG: It did and it didn’t. In my MFA program I learned a lot of the principles of creative writing, especially how to write good prose, and how to develop family members into full fledged characters. But honestly, that can be learned in good writing classes. It might just take more time than in a MFA program, which is a more intense learning experience. My MFA program didn’t teach me how to transform source material like my grandfather’s memoirs into a compelling story. I figured that out through much trial and error, and by workshopping much of the manuscript with a group of fellow MFA graduates.
TWM: What’s next for you?
AG: I am considering creating an online class that would expand on How to Write Compelling Stories from Family History. I also have a children’s book manuscript ready that is based on my mother-in-law’s experiences as a hidden child in France during the Holocaust. So more family history stories are in the offing!