It’s decided. I’ll write my family history as a series of vignettes.
I could have chosen to create a book of essays. Or a novel. I could have set my sights on a collection of short stories. Or decided to spin out a mystery. I could have chucked prose and composed odes to my ancestors.
I gained glimpses into how each of these forms might work for me during the class Exploring Your Heritage: A Writing Sampler Weekend at Vesterheim: The National Norwegian-American Museum & Heritage Center. Bestselling author Kathleen Ernst led the class of 15 wannabe authors. She seemed the perfect teacher for our group, having spent decades crafting and publishing stories based on Midwest and immigrant history. Each of us was looking for a way to take our family lore from oral history—or mystery—to coherent written form, suitable for the edification of future generations.
A good percentage, but not all of us, were of Norwegian heritage. I am not, for instance. But I’m drawn to the museum because my ancestors immigrated to America at one point too, and the museum’s crafts, cabins, paintings, and photographs illustrate shared immigrant experience, no matter your original nationality. It’s a great jumping off place to imagine a family’s lives when they first arrived in this country.
As with many of the folk art classes offered through Vesterheim, the writing weekend put the museum’s artifacts to use. On Saturday, we trouped up to the second floor. “Choose an artifact that speaks to you,” Kathleen said, “And write about the person who made it, owned it, or used it.” Who knew the answers to any of these questions? I chose a slightly lopsided wooden rocker once owned by a man named Elias and made up a story about how he’d carved and loved that rocker.
“Now write about someone who felt the opposite way about that artifact,” Kathleen called out to us as we scribbled away in our corners. Well, you see, Elias’s wife hated that rocker. He’d made it for her all those years ago, but she never had time to sit in it. Too much work on that immigrant farm. It was Elias who’d given the chair its left-sided slant, stretching out in it each evening after barn chores while his wife toiled into the night at her own tasks. Resentment twisted her own features over the years.
Kathleen gave us such prompts throughout the weekend. We’d write for ten minutes on an emotion handed out on index cards (mine was guilt; that was easy), a half an hour on a scene in a museum painting, five minutes on a gift we’d like to have given someone, another ten on a family photo we’d brought with us. The idea was always to keep the pen or keyboard moving, not to worry about perfection. That could be a concern for later polishing, after the written piece existed.
Kathleen was generous with her advice and examples from her own career. She was patient with this room full of storytellers, each of us eager to share what we’d learned about our own fascinating family histories. She’d find the kernel in each story that could enlighten all of us. And as classmates reacted to poetry that Kathleen had us read aloud, I often found myself thinking, "Wow, I didn’t see it that way, or, yes, that’s a good point."
By the end of the weekend, I had more confidence that writing my family history was something I could do. It could be interesting, emotional, not just a litany of facts and census data. I could start small and see where it went. I already had glimpses into lives from a hundred years ago and more, and those glimpses could become vignettes. Maybe they’d grow into full stories, but I didn’t have to worry about that now.
On the last day, when Kathleen asked me what my next step would be, I said, "Well, I guess I’ll just start writing."
Vesterheim photo by Luther College Photo Bureau.