Connecting Dots to Find Story

Connect-dotsMy cousins and I play an ongoing game of Connect the Dots as we try to piece together a fuller picture of our forebears’ lives. What we are learning opens choices about how to shape stories we leave behind.

The most intriguing set of dots right now involves my great-grandmother, Matilda Evelyn Grammer, who married Robert Milo Roberts, son of Governor Roberts of Texas when she was not quite 16 and he was 37. When she was widowed at 26, she was responsible for two nearly-grown step-children and four of her own, ranging from one to ten years old. Two years later, she married Paul Arthur Preuit, the (great)grandfather my cousins and I share. We know quite a bit about the Preuit part of her life, but her life with Roberts Roberts is largely a blank. We’re working on that.

Last year a cousin wanted to know if I could tell her anything about the possibility her mother (my aunt) lived for a short time with my father’s family – before my parents were married. That opened a  new package of dots about both our families and the enduring friendship between these aunts. 

Why does this matter? Why do we play Connect the Dots?

Our brains are wired to crave story, drilling down to details and closure. What is closure? Understanding WHY things happened and WHAT they mean. To some extent, we look to the past to explain how things are now, and imagine how they might be as we move forward. We explore examples of ancestors to make sense of ourselves and how we can handle the curves life may throw.

As my cousins and I continue to dig, we’ll find more information about where people lived and maybe glimpses of what they did, but for the most part, we’ll have to make up story to connect those dots. We’ll know, for example, that in 1888, Texas women did not have air-conditioned houses and we’ll speculate about what life must have been like as they toiled in gardens and doing laundry in the blazing Texas summers in long sleeves and long skirts. We’ll have to wonder if mid-wives helped deliver Grandmother Tilly’s children, or perhaps a doctor drove up in his buggy just in time.

We’ll conclude that we come from a line of tough women who knew how to survive. We’ll never know how Grandmother Tilly felt about the ups and downs of her life. What were her regrets? Did she wonder what life would have been like “if only”?

Implications for Life Writers

We can document our lives on two levels, detail and meaning. Details give the dots. Our descendants will know what happened when, in general terms. That leaves them to wonder and connect dots themselves, the best they can.

We can do them a favor and connect the dots for them, writing stories rich in reflection and insight. We can show the lessons we learn and what the bumps we roll over mean to us. These rich stories will satisfy our descendants, helping them quickly and easily understand us and our times.

The key to writing these rich stories is to take the time with each story we write to ask ourselves

  • Why did this happen?
  • What does it mean?
  • What did I learn?

Include the answers to these questions in your story and intrigue readers of any time and generation. They’ll thank you for making the effort.

If you don’t have time or inclination to dig so deeply, fret not. Keep writing anyway. Remember,

Anything you write is better than writing nothing.

At the very least, you’ll leave them dots to connect if they wish.


Amy said...

I love this post for obvious reasons. My whole blog is about connecting the dots that I find, and my novel took that to a whole other fictitious level.

As for writing my own life stories, I am still reluctant to do that. Too many conflicted feelings about too many experiences because of one unfortunate member of my family. I can't write about my childhood because of that, and so instead I write about other people's lives.

Hope you are feeling yourself again!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Amy, you are a master of connecting document dots, and I enjoy playing this game with you too.

As for your concern about writing your childhood stories because of THAT PERSON, when I hear a statement like that, I recognize someone who needs to write those stories, ONLY FOR HERSELF. Write them to make sense of the past. Use those three questions to dig deep. Don't show your work to anyone else, at least not for a long time. Once you are clear in your own mind, you may change your thinking about that, but writing for yourself is the important thing. It can bring peace and serenity, even decades after the fact.

What better time to start than the Easter/Passover season?

Amy said...

Thanks for that suggestion, Sharon. I hadn't thought about writing just for myself. Somehow even that makes me uncomfortable. One, what if someone found what I wrote at some point? Would it cause more trouble than it's worth? Plus would I be more upset writing about these things---would it stir up more feelings than I want to feel?

I did write up one story about a family trip to Italy in 2001 (right before 9-11) where THAT person essentially poisoned the trip for the rest of the family. Maybe writing it was therapeutic. I know I felt compelled to do it at the time so that I would remember it as clearly as I could in the months after the trip.

I will consider doing what you said.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Amy, I've written enough posts on these topics to fill at least half a book. Writing into the Fireplace tells you how to avoid having your work discovered by others.

If you look on the menu bar under the masthead on my blog, you'll see a link to Writing for the Health of It. I published that blog several years ago, and it's now archived. It's full of material about the healing powers of writing. Why Write? gives a short overview of the work of James Pennebaker, the pioneer of expressive writing research. You can search either blog for Pennebaker and find a long list of helpful posts.

Maybe it's time for another post on this topic!

Amy said...

I read Writing into the Fireplace. Not to be cute about it---but I have no fireplace, and shredding might work for paper, but it doesn't delete what's somehow on your hard drive. Also, I am not trying to resolve anger. I guess what I am saying is that to write about my childhood, I'd have to include this person (a sibling, not a parent), and I don't want to have to think about this person at all. It's too toxic and painful. Maybe the writing would purge some of that pain, but at this point I don't want to risk the upset that comes with even thinking about this sibling.

I will go see if your other posts convince me otherwise!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Tip from the top of my head: if not thinking about it works for you, then don't write. If you find yourself ruminating often, write on. Documents are the safest thing. Password them. Check your save options. Just don't forget the password yourself. It's not recoverable.