It is an enjoyable diversion that can calm your mind and strengthen bonds of love and mutual dependence
By Michael M. Barrick
This is Part 1 in a series of articles from my “Community of Writers Just Write!” workshop. The series is designed to provide us a diversion from our current woes (but don’t ignore them!). These are time-tested in previous workshops done in North Carolina and Arizona with high schoolers, college students and adult learners. Recently, using it in our own family, we have been hearing many stories for the first time from my mother-in-law. The stories have not only captivated my wife and me, but also our children, granddaughter and others. Some are personal, sweet and simply enjoyable; others are quite poignant, as they include remembrances of the Great Depression and World War II. These latter memories provide hope from a very precious member of the quickly dwindling Greatest Generation.
This is offered not only as a diversion, but as something that you will value beyond anything you can purchase at a store or through Amazon (Good Lord, give those workers a break! Do you really need all that stuff?). I have enjoyed conducting this workshop with students of all ages. It was particularly gratifying to see sophomores re-embrace writing after being beaten down by testing. What was most pleasing, though, was to simply sit in a circle and listen to their final products — their own stories, memories of grandparents, interviews of teachers — that truly taught the value of oral histories, writing and story-telling. I was also humbled recently when Carol Starr, a participant in our “Just Write!” workshop at the Lenoir library a few years ago acknowledged that workshop in her book, “Ripples: little poems.” She wrote, “Thanks to Michael Barrick for his class that encouraged me to get started.”
Now, that may sound like bragging, but it isn’t. Read closely what Carol said. It was the class — people interacting, not a lesson plan — that encouraged her to get started. I saw it there every time we met. I saw it in Flagstaff, I’ve seen it everywhere we’ve done this. Not because I’m special; but because you are special. Your stories are special. Your memories are special. Your family and friends are special. Your times are special.
I’ve discovered that most people are reluctant to write. If that’s the case, you just need a little nudge to open the floodgates of memories that will compel you to write. Stories, poems, songs, whatever, it doesn’t matter. They’re inside of you. And, you’re likely trapped inside. This is the time to start the recovery of community even as the pandemic still is unfolding. I am confident that you will find collecting and telling stories a lovely diversion for the moment. And, when we get through this, perhaps you will have grown closer to family and friends by knowing them better. Also, I hope you’ll learn to slow down a bit.
For starters, we’ll read about the historical method; we’ll then proceed to some writing. We’ll start with a brief prompt for journal writing, followed by a longer writing prompt: “A Special Person in My Life.”
We won’t yet review grammar, style, usage, spelling, etc. Worrying over this will just slow you down. We’ll learn how to recognize and correct errors later, when you can gather with others with whom to write. We’ll also wait a few installments before providing questions for collecting an oral history. For now, you are interviewing yourself in a sense as you explore your own memory. So, enjoy and just write!
Daily journal writing is a great way to become comfortable with writing, as it becomes routine and is rooted in what you know best — your own life. The writing prompts (three in total) have several questions to guide you through focused-free writing. That simply means that for the purposes of learning how to collect oral histories and chronicle family histories, you do need to be focused on people, places and events. However, you must also allow your mind to float freely as you consider those topics.
THE HISTORICAL METHOD
In the Introduction to my history book, “Exceptional Care, a Century Strong: A ‘Mission of Mercy and Healing’: The history of Frye Regional Medical Center,” I wrote, “The study of history is, to a large degree, a quest for meaning. It is to quietly lean forward, hand cupped against an ear, to allow the voices of our past whisper to us their stories.” This, essentially, is an informal definition of the historical method (or historiography). Indeed, the historical method is, at its most basic, the collection of facts and storytelling – to help us identify the meaning of history for ourselves and future generations.
A foundational guiding principle of the historical method is to value the voices of the time being researched. Primary source documents – literary works, official documents, and private archives from the time period – provide the accounts of those that were contemporary witnesses of the people and events being studied and researched. While the accounts may be incomplete or colored by political, religious or cultural biases, they remain the most reliable records because they are the most authentic. Yet, if valuing the voices of the time is essential for collecting history, then a key element in remaining true to the historical method is to utilize oral histories. They contribute valuable information, corroborate other sources, and add depth and richness to our collective narrative.
Write about what has happened to you to this point today.
Purpose: The basic principle of writing is, “Write what you know about.” In this exercise, you are as prepared as possible, since the events are recent or current. It is easier to adhere to this principle while the thoughts and feelings are fresh. Write until you are satisfied that you have covered what is most memorable about the day, for whatever reason.
FOCUSED FREE WRITING PROMPT 1 — An Important Person in Your LIfe
- Think about all the people that have been important or special to you in your life. Length of relationship is no more important than the impact the person had on you. Which person really stands out in your memory or in the present? It can be for negative or positive reasons. Unless a person immediately comes to mind, quickly start a list of people that comes to mind that are important or special. When you finish the list, read back through it and pick somebody. Write your choice at the top of a sheet of notebook paper, like a title.
- How does thinking of this person make you feel? Why?
- As you remember the times you were with this person, choose an event, moment or season spent with this person and free write about that memory. Repeat this a few times until you feel you have dealt with all the most important memories, experiences and influences that this person has had on your life. Do not hesitate to share poignant moments from the relationship that help illustrate why this person is so critical to you.
- Now, combine these notes into a narrative about why the person is important to you. What is the reader to learn? Focus on the person’s characteristics. Describe the person physically.
- Do any of your senses remind you of this person? In what way?
- Do you see a pattern in the things that have stood out in your memory about this person? If so, what relevance does this have to your relationships with this person?
- What in the rest of your life has caused you to feel the way you do about this person?
- How have your experiences with this person affected your life?
- What is most important to you about this person?
- Who could really benefit from knowing this person as you do? How or why could they benefit?
- Is there anything else about this person that people should know?
- Using your answers, compose an essay about this important person in your life. Consider your audience. Is this story like a feature story in a newspaper for a general audience, or more for family? Keep the audience in mind as you write. Hold onto your essay, as you will be referring to it again as we write additional prompts to put together a larger story.
Thanks for reading! It is our hope this provides you with an enjoyable diversion and helps strengthen the bonds of love and mutual dependence with your family, friends and in your community. Check back soon for the next installment.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2001-2020. This may be reprinted or reproduced without charge or request. We just request that proper attribution be given. Photos from Unsplash. Family on beach by Patricia Prudente; Writer by Hannah Olinger; Reader by David Lezcano.