Thursday, February 23, 2012

Research and Primary Sources

Mom says she’ll shoot me if I use anything from Wikipedia. You should know that I wouldn’t use such an variable, unreliable source for anything more than an initial search, not for a final source. You should also know that the part of my family that has the shootin’ and murderin’ history is several generations back and only by marriage, as certain relatives, every time of the story tellin’ make clear. So I am in no serious shootin’ danger from mom. Yeah, I have the stories passed down from one of the most famous feuding families in the U.S. We keep track of this stuff in my family.

That, in fact, is where this whole Wikipedia thing started up. I spent yesterday in a Rubbermaid tub, visiting with some Mayflower relatives. Eleven generations ago, three of my ancestors arrived on the Mayflower and two helped with the Mayflower Compact. One of these ancestors was a young woman. Yeah, I know. Write a story, A! But I’ve never professionally written this history stuff. Couldn’t there have been an armadillo on the Mayflower or something? Now, that, I could have written. . .

Instead I have slipsliding piles of carefully researched stories and family trees. Civil War. 18th century valentine. A stitched sampler from my ancestor, age 14. And reams of history researched by exchanging letters and visiting archives. My grandfather, mother, and a few other relatives did this work, painstakingly working from primary sources, all footnoted with quotes from deeds of sale and marriage notes in books and these kinds of things.

Mom doesn’t want me to muddy the good stuff with any malarky from Wikipedia. Anyone can make changes in Wikipedia. That makes it both a great source, a piece of collective wisdom from generous experts, and a very questionable source, one polluted by people with an agenda. (As opposed to family stories which OF COURSE are solid gold in terms of accuracy. See me wink.)

Yes, history can always be mangled by people with an agenda. But that’s another track, for others on this INK blog to delve into more deeply. All I know is that I googled the ship my Grandfather was on, that was torpedoed in WWI, and I found so many varying accounts, I was confused. Was it torpedoed, or did it just catch on fire? Did it sink after my grandfather floated away on that lifeboat and was pulled onto a British ship in the inky dark of night?

Whatever—it makes a great story in his rich but cracking 90-year old voice. I love oral history. That has been a lifelong passion—interviewing people about the past. My joy has always been sound, voice, language. There’s nothing like hearing the stories of growin’ up in rural Mississippi in the 1890s-1920. Or the stories of New England during World War II. Or the story of my grandfather abandoning the sinking ship in WWI. The Civil War stories, too, are fuzzier with time, but so polished by telling, generation after generation. I have a computer full of all these voices, these stories at my fingertips. So I teach people about how to honor others by recording the stories not just of the old, but also of the young. Because our young perspectives and voices, too, are lost with time, long before we die.

Yes, the great challenge of history is sources, reliable sources. The other part is the narrative through line. Because history has twists and turns, and loses threads sometimes, just when the story gets meaty and marvelous. Oh well, I’ll see what I can find. Perhaps it’s time to take a little detour away from squirrels and vultures and into some people history. There is a moth on that 19th century valentine. Will I write about human history? Probably not. Too busy with nature. For this material, I’ll probably just be a recorder, not an interpretive writer. So many others do this work with passion and grace.


Jim Murphy said...

We all want to be as accuarte and true as possible in our writing. We know we are communicating this information to young readers who might not have (probably don't have) the ability to sift through the details, read source notes with a decerning eye, draw on their own banked knowledge to judge what to believe or not, etc., etc. Knowing this is a good thing and should always be a part of our process. But you seem to have some genuinely powerful stories and sources here and I'd suggest moving forward with these ideas while you are still passionate about them. Your professional approach to your research and writing, your caring, will see you through this in fine form. Oh, and have fun.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

I've been hearing hints of your family history for years now, and you are the ultimate tease! Insert as many moths and armadillos as you want to, but the world awaits your family stories - or at least I do.

April Pulley Sayre said...

Thanks for the nudge, y'all. Obviously I am cogitating on this. But I'm happily ensconced in plant and wild animal projects that call me more deeply. This is just me stirring that little saucepan on the far back burner...