Triumph at the End of a Rocky Road

The note above shows one of a rapidly growing list that Carol B has received from family members after privately publishing a volume of family history laced together with relevant aspects of her personal story. She swells with happiness at each one. These notes are more than usually rewarding. The road to this outcome has been rocky. Her stories sizzle with intrigue. That eventually presented a problem.

Carol, her parents, and a family friend (I omit her full name at her request to protect her family’s privacy), spent decades gathering stories and documents from county records and other sources, documenting purchase and sale of property, births, deaths and marriages, police and jail records, newspaper articles and pictures. Piles and piles of pictures. She took careful notes as relatives chewed the fat at family events.  She even sought out help from her local historical society to gather added information.

Eventually she wove memories and facts into stories. Lifestory writing group members pointed out unclear areas, missing material and more. Her strong writing grew polished in both content and structure. Then forces of darkness emerged.

Her family’s history includes mayhem, madness and murder. It’s all a matter of public record, and mostly forgotten, though ripples remain in family attitudes and traits. Still, she was loathe to publish it all without warning the family. She told everyone whose names appeared in the book what she was up to and asked their permission to share stories relevant to their immediate family members. With the exception of one person within her family, she was offered nothing but support and encouragement.  She did not have anyone else read her book, as she was not willing to write a book by committee.  As it turned out, the faith that family members had in her was almost unanimous. Others showed their trust by giving full permission to use their names and their particular family stories.

However, there was one family member who, without even reading the book, objected on principle. “There is no reason to dig all that stuff up again.”  Said Person would not discuss it with Carol and did not respond to numerous requests to be named in the book, then cut off  direct communication.

Carol’s inner critic went nuts. What if I’m sued?  Maybe I’m too critical. Maybe my book is too negative.  Even if I do expose the people in my book to public scrutiny, these are the stories of my family. What should I do?

Her voice had the sound of defeat as she told me, “That person has gobs of money and can afford to sue me on a whim. Maybe that will happen. Maybe I should just drop it. Maybe I should just share the Word file with anyone who wants to read it.”

“You’ve told dozens of people you’re doing this, and they all want to see it finished. What about them? Will you be letting them down? You’ve set aside funds to see it through. How can we work around this?”

Note to readers: don’t try to handle this alone. Get plenty of perspectives. 

“Do you think I’ve been too critical?  Is my book too negative?”

“NO! But I’m not always the best judge of emotional tone. Let’s get one more opinion.” I recommended another writer I know who excels in this area. Her response was supportive. Carol regained her grip.

She decided she would proceed with the project with these caveats:
  • She omitted all references to Said Person beyond a couple of picture captions where she cites the relationship without a name.  She decides to include a vintage photo of Said Person, but includes only a first initial and maiden last name.  To do otherwise would have made her uncomfortable, since she did not want to purposefully leave anyone out of the family history.  She also decided to mail Said Person a copy of the family history book. To date, there has been no acknowledgement of receipt though communication on other subjects has been resumed. 
  • In the Acknowledgments she states: “I have remained faithful to the stories that were passed down through the family and relied on my own memories and those of other family members for additional tales. Throughout the process, I maintained my belief and intention to cause no harm.”
  • The back cover includes a disclaimer of sorts: “… For decades she has collected stories from relatives and public records. She compiles those stories with personal reflections to tell the family’s story with truth and honesty to the best of her understanding.” 

She also firmed up her decision to keep publication as private as possible.

This last step required thinking out of the box. Carol is facing serious health problems and wants to ensure that her extended family will be able to independently order additional copies for years to come.

In line with her decision to keep the book private, she vowed to avoid all promotion and publicity. She is eager, however, for others to know of her experience, even though they won’t be reading the book. Buoyed by the outpouring of gratitude from family members, such as the note above, she has asked me to share that story, hoping to inspire others who battled doubts about sensitive disclosure to persist and find their own way around obstacles.

I’m happy to oblige, emphasizing to readers that publishing privately with limited distribution can be a strong and rewarding option for those who shy away from telling all to the world at large.

As the fan letter notes, Carol is hard at work on a second volume, a personal memoir. Will this one also be kept under wraps? Who knows? If she opts for open publication, you’ll be among the first to know.

Points to Ponder: What tense material might slow down your writing project? What creative workarounds can you come up with? Who can you turn to for support and fresh ideas?

Points to Ponder: What tense material might slow down your writing project? What creative workarounds can you come up with? Who can you turn to for support and fresh ideas?

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