Category Archives: On Biography

Words as Resource

Diaries, letters, and interviews are terrific resources because they give us people’s own words. Diaries are usually very private documents, letters usually are meant for one or two readers only, and interviews are usually more public expressions. Having all three types is very interesting because we can learn about some contradictions and see what sorts of things people think it’s important to record or mention. When we’re writing family histories, we have to use whatever we’ve got. If there’s only one volume of a journal, only a few letters or postcards, or only one person to interview, it’s still a valuable resource.

Go ahead and read that secret diary, those private letters, and ask the leading questions when you interview. Here are a few tips to guide your work with verbal sources:

  • Notice things like penmanship, grammar, spelling, punctuation
  • Pay attention to dates—historically important, connected to family events
  • Who sent and who received the letters—familiar or unfamiliar to you, surprises
  • Where were letters sent to, received from—known or unknown or unexpected
  • Feel free to interrupt an interview with clarification questions
  • Read letters and diaries several times—unnoticed things can suddenly appear
  • Record interviews, if you can, but make notes, too
  • E-mail interviews can work really well

It took me half a dozen readings of six letters, from one woman to another almost a century ago, before I realized that to be well or to be unwell was a euphemism, which I looked up and found to refer to menstruation. Once I knew that revealing detail, it helped make other things in the letters clear, as well. My assumptions got in the way for the first five readings. There also can be some interesting gaps in journals, such as a wedding going unmentioned. What a diarist includes and omits means something, and it’s fun to figure out what it means.

You could interview a family member about a specific year or event or tradition in that person’s own life. You could interview a different family member in order to get a different point of view on those moments. You could interview someone from outside the family, such as a neighbour or employee or high school friend. In my work with a family of four sisters, I was curious to know how schoolmates saw the girls. That interview also provided me with lots of information about the social lives of teenagers when those girls were growing up.

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Filed under On Biography, On Writing

Reading Photographs

When I teach courses in lifewriting, I always start with an exercise on photographs because they are the most common resource, and almost everyone has at least one picture. Photographs reveal a vast variety of information. We can see with our own eyes the measurable physical attributes (height, weight, age, shape) of a person, as well as make note of the posture and positioning of the subject in relation to others and to things. We can see what people have. My sister has a lovely pin that is a family heirloom, although we did not know its exact origins. A few years ago, I was sorting through photographs for my work, and—because my sister had worn the pin just recently—I recognized it at the throat of our great-grandmother. I excitedly showed the portrait to my sister, who paused for a moment and said “well, that explains why it never sits right—I’ve been wearing it wrong.”

Look through albums and boxes full of photographs. People always say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but really, a picture provokes a thousand words. Here are a few tips to help you read and interpret photographs:

  • Notice the captions—dates, places, names, quips, nicknames
  • How do people relate to each other—detached, affectionate
  • How do people relate to the camera—confident, self-conscious
  • Who stands next to whom
  • Is the picture a formal studio portrait or a casual family snapshot
  • What are people wearing—overalls, suits, gowns, aprons
  • What are people doing—posing, working, playing
  • What else is in the picture—pets, cars, furniture, machinery, landscapes

Notice all of those things. And then, think about what they mean. Some of these considerations are very revealing for a researcher. Maybe you’ll see that in group pictures, one person stands a little apart from the rest, or that two people are always standing together in the group. It’s possible that you have the luxury of someone with whom you can sort through the pictures and ask questions—who is this? when was this taken? where was this taken?—or that you’re on your own with all your questions. If you give a photograph a little time, it can tell you things you didn’t know, if you let it, if you ask it.


Filed under On Biography, On Thinking, On Writing