When creating a memoir or family video, you will inevitably come across bits of information that you want to include, but which you cannot verify. You’ve ascertained all the facts that can be checked. But then you know all kinds of other stories that nobody can authenticate. For instance, there’s a legend in your family that your great grandfather almost won a Nobel Prize. Or you believe your parents were not in love with one another. Can these claims be proved? Not likely.
All you can do is use your best judgement to infer the truth. Here we offer 3 tips for doing that:
1) Include the “inferred truths” in your story. These stories can strengthen your recollections and add meaning which would otherwise be lacking.
For instance, your parents were married in 1930. Most young couples are without solid financial backing when they start out. Your parents, as much as you (and anyone else) knows, didn’t have a “rich uncle” to ease them through these first years. Are you justified in concluding they must have felt the effects of the Depression during their first days together?
You can’t “prove” this, of course. If, as scientists do with their theories, you proceed as if your hypothesis were true–that your parents must have had a lean time of it then–what insight does this assumption give you about decisions they made during those years, or about attitudes they held in their later life together? Interpretations like these, based on reasonable inferences, can make another person’s life more understandable and your portrait more colorful.
2) Attribute your interpretations. Start with phrases like “If that were true, it seems to me that…”, or “We’ve always been told that…” Your interpretation or inference will take its place as a possible truth in the story you are telling. And the reader or listener will be able to distinguish the cold hard facts from the stories that are harder to verify.
3) Avoid cliches. As you allow yourself to arrive at conclusions in this way, be sure to recognize clichés. These are the ill-fitting shortcuts that actually obscure the individuality of your characters. If you find yourself saying, “Everyone in those days was like that,” let the alarm bells go off! You have left the firm ground of inference behind and are tromping into the dangerous swampland of cliché!
Family histories are inherently uncertain. Don’t let that scare you away, or limit your storytelling to the basic facts. Although they are quite different from verifiable truths, your inferred truths have a rightful place in your story. Your readers and listeners will appreciate the effort.
This post was contributed by Denis Ledoux, founder of the Soleil Lifestory Network. Denis is an accomplished ghostwriter who helps clients write memoirs, one story at a time. Denis was selected as one of the top 10 personal history bloggers of 2011 by Dan Curtis. For more information on Denis, including how to get a copy of the free Memory List Question Book, visit www.turningmemories.com.