history

Stories Through Generations: How Our Family History Shapes Our Internal Narrative

As often happens in these conversations, we took some twists and turns from topic to topic, and somehow found our way back to the original theme of the podcast: Our family history shapes us, and if we don't share those stories, we not only leave gaping holes in our understanding of ourselves, we lose our connection to other humans.

Make History Accessible - Share Stories

Our son is taking theatre this year in school and is loving the experience. We've been telling him for years that he should get involved in performing arts because he can be SO dramatic...

A few weeks ago his class was asked to participate in the State Historical Society's Thursday night live reading event. The students, with great direction from their teacher, selected letters and diaries written by everyday Montanans between 1880 and 1990 to read to the audience. They were invited to select letters and diaries from the Historical Society's robust collection, and to research the characters with help from teachers and professionals in the agency. They also did research on their own to find images, photographs and maps, to create a visual accompaniment for the performance. The letters and diaries were from everyday Montanans, soldiers, families of soldiers, adventurers, and families separated during the civil war.

As a group, they defined the genre they wished to focus on, selected which letters and diaries to read, and created brief narratives to explain to the audience what they were about to hear.

Students took turns that evening between reading the narratives and reading the letters and diary entries as if they were those characters. It was an outstanding performance. What was extraordinary about the evening were the students' responses to questions from the audience following the live readings.

"When you were researching these characters, what struck you most about them?"

The people were real people, not famous historical figures. They were real people with real feelings, fears, and concerns for their families back home. We've read history with major characters, but these people were THERE, in the foxholes, writing letters to people and not knowing if they would ever see them again. They were real people who were experiencing historic moments with different perspectives, hopes, and dreams for the future.

"When you were reading through the letters in class, deciding which ones to include, did you have any emotional responses?"

Oh yes. Sometimes as we read a letter out loud to our classmates we'd get choked up, having trouble finishing reading without crying. I can't speak for my classmates, but for me it was about seeing myself in these words. My brother is serving in the military now and I couldn't help imagining what he would say in a letter if he wrote one.

"Did this exercise make you think differently about letter writing, and technology's impact on our lives and stories?"

Absolutely. It made me want to start writing a diary. So my words might offer a glimpse into real life in this era, way into the future.

Definitely. Reading these letters made me think I should start hand writing letters - on paper, with a pen - so my family could have them in the future.

Yes, for sure. I realized how much we could lose in terms of historical perspective from individuals - not famous people - if we don't find ways to collect the digital records being created now. But not just collecting them, there is plenty of data out there. We need to find ways to make sure the stories don't get lost in the sea of digital records, that we can categorize them and keep them long into the future.

I realized that those letters I have from my grandparents are even more valuable, bigger treasures, than I had given them credit for. Now I want to keep them safe, scan them in case of damage, and make sure I have them for my children some day. 

I realize that handwriting really is important because it's part of what made these stories so real to us. Handwriting can give you a glimpse into the personality of the writer.

Are you as impressed as I am by these students? They are telling their own stories simply by expressing their feelings and thoughts about the characters they are researching! How much more can we do for ourselves in sharing our stories in such an engaging environment?

They were asked to perform like this again at another Thursday night reading. The organizers and audience were gushing about the power of this experience and were energized to do more with this concept.

Stories have impact on us emotionally, intellectually and physically. Many of us in the audience were sitting up and leaning forward for the entire hour-long production. What does that say about the performers and their material?

Do you have stories like this to share? Tell me more in the comments below!

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About me:

A skilled teacher and entertaining speaker, I offer storytelling and customer service trainings and workshops and one-to-one coaching. I teach people how to find their stories, organize them, and share them across platforms. Learning to tell your story is the key to your success. Visit this page to learn more.