my life

Mapping Out My Family's History

My dad (lower right), my uncle, my grandmother, my grandpa.

My dad (lower right), my uncle, my grandmother, my grandpa.

I’ve been thinking about family history a lot lately—both mine and other people’s, as well as how we practice family history in historical societies and as amateur genealogists.  If the stories I’ve heard over the years are true, on my dad’s side alone, my ancestors include:

  • A Belgian anarchist descended from French Huguenots who fled religious persecution;

  • A teetotaling temperance activist and Methodist minister who founded colleges out west, and his wife, who may or may not be a relative of Oliver Hazard Perry;

  • A Kentucky couple that used family ferry boats to bring people who had escaped from slavery across the Ohio River as part of the Underground Railroad.

My mom’s side does not quite have the same tall tales as my dad’s side does. Her tree, though, boasts veterans of both World Wars and immigrants from Italy, Germany, Sweden, and maybe Switzerland. 

Genealogy was the hobby that my mom took up when I went to college, and I know that she has done much of her side already.  She carefully scrapbooked out her lineage and gave copies to her siblings for their benefit. So I’ve spent my free moments in these past couple weeks digging through records on Family Search trying to confirm and extend what I already know about the people who make up my family tree, especially my dad’s side where the potential for excellent stories seems so great. Much of my experience with genealogical research is doing research into local history for the organizations I’ve helped in the past—genealogical resources can provide the most accurate information faster than any other source.  There’s probably an essay to be written about the democratic nature of these primary sources and the guarantee that so many people have had their names inscribed in documents for their ancestors to find.

It’s exhilarating to use the expertise I’ve honed professionally to discover more about my heritage, especially when it intersects with touchstones I have from research for work.  That prior knowledge helps me imagine the interior lives of my ancestors who spread across the true Midwest and the Great Plains in the middle of the nineteenth century.  For example, I spent two years serving as an AmeriCorps Member in Oberlin, Ohio, where religion and temperance activism went hand in hand throughout the city’s history.  This helps me see my ancestor, the minister and temperance activist, through their eyes because I understand why Oberlinians had signed on to the cause.  Coupled with my dad’s memory of my grandmother saying she had never found him to be that kind or attentive (despite that he was her grandfather!), I have learned much more about the ingredients that compose my people today.

The marriage record for my great-grandparents.

The marriage record for my great-grandparents.

Some caveats: it bothers me that you often cannot see the actual documents when you’re using a site like Family Search, and that means I cannot verify connections or spellings with the certainty that I would like as a historian.  Sometimes results don’t come up in searches, even when I know I spelled names right, because they were transcribed incorrectly—“Amna” instead of “Anna” in a census record.  Sometimes whole lines of family tree results come up incorrectly because another user has mapped a line based on their belief that they have the right information. For example, the father of the supposed Underground Railroad conductor’s wife currently has three contemporaneous wives listed. I am not currently sure which one is right, but the WASPy nature of the family tree makes certain that there can be only one.

I know I’m lucky to know so much about my family history already, and I am lucky to be able to apply my training and resources to finding out more.  It’s weird to know that some of my ancestors are all over the historic texts on Google books. Of course, other ancestors, ones that I would like to know so much more about, have barely left a trace—they left only what my parents can tell me now.

The 2017 Cleveland Inkubator + Writing Habits

I'm the ginger in the row under the purple banner.

I'm the ginger in the row under the purple banner.

Yesterday, I went to the 3rd annual Cleveland Inkubator, a free, day-long writing conference put on by a local nonprofit Literary Cleveland. This organization began about two years ago, and in a sense, I’ve been there from the start—though I’ve only taken one of Lit Cleveland’s paid workshops, I’ve attended all three Inkubators and participated in workshops on fiction and non-fiction with a number of local writers whose work I enjoy.   My face is even front and center on their marketing materials (see above).   Yet sometimes I still ask myself: am I truly a writer? Or is that just what my business card says? If I’m feeling particularly flat on any given day, I follow that up with: and why did I list “writer” on my business card in the first place?

This year at the Inkubator, there were a number of suitable workshops for “agnostic” writers; that's how I like to refer to people who can’t decide if they’re writers. Another workshop could stoke my interest in the paranormal and occult. I started the day with a workshop on “Facing the Blank Page” a.k.a. the true story of my every effort to write fiction. I followed that up with “The First Page of Your Novel”—this workshop focused on how good the first pages of famous novels are and how to make your first page good enough to convince a publisher to keep reading. The last workshop I did—“Tarot for Writers”—suggested using tarot cards as a tool when you’re stuck. Not as a crutch, but as a way of brainstorming from one choice about a character to the next. All of the instructors gave practical exercises that could be applied in any situation, and they also gave advice for continuing along a writing path.

Around the time that I was in middle school, a local independent bookstore near my town sponsored a yearly short story contest. My middle school English teacher had us write short stories for the contest every year—she would choose the best two or three stories from the class and then submit them to the store’s contest. I’ve written before on this blog about how, as a small child, I wrote stories all the time, but this contest was different. We came to expect it. We let ideas marinate over time knowing when the contest would again become the subject of our lessons. The most beautiful part? We were allowed to write about whatever we wanted, and this teacher, like many other writers I’ve met since, encouraged us to write what we knew.

What I knew as a fifth-grader was that I really loved my cat, Mayflower, and I wanted him (yes… him) to be some kind of superhero. So I wrote a ghastly short story about an alien cat with superpowers, to which my heroic teacher responded with unmerited grace and kindness. It did not make the final cut for the store’s contest.

What I knew as a sixth-grader was my then very active passion for medieval history, the remnants of which now mostly serve to inform my consumption of Game of Thrones. This knowledge, combined with an especial interest in the Black Death, meant that my protagonist was a young girl, about my age at the time, who began the story by walking the streets of her village as a cart rolled by with a man yelling, “Bring out your dead!” This, too, did not make the cut, but was more successful as a story.

And what did I know as a seventh-grader? My tremendous interest in grisly moments in history remained, and this time I wrote my story about the Salem Witch Trials. Again, my protagonist was a girl, around my age, forced into nearly impossible circumstances. And this time, my teacher chose my story to move on to the store’s contest.

The bookstore has since closed, and I am not aware of any similar opportunity for kids that age in the area. But while it lasted, it meant that there was at least one time a year when a routine could be followed, a story cranked out and put up for review. It meant that, when my high school English teacher made a similar demand for a short story, it was a matter of flexing a muscle that’s already in shape. When she asked specifically for historical fiction, I wrote a story about a little boy who accidentally becomes embroiled in the Black Sox scandal—in that case, baseball was what I knew.

My point here is this: writing is a habit, and one that you need to practice and hone. Anyone will tell you that, but it’s one thing that I knew for certain when I was writing my dissertation. I didn’t always fool around with daily word goals, at least not until finishing was almost at hand. I did, however, make sure that for as many days as possible I was in the library trying to write between 3pm and 8pm—these were the hours I did best at writing. The words usually flowed the best when I had been reading all morning and could actively rework the thoughts and concepts I had just read.

Today, in my morning workshop, I had a long-needed moment of epiphany—a moment so clear that I can’t even remember what triggered it now. But I understood that I do, truly, know all the habits and techniques that it takes to write, whether that’s a novel or a non-fiction book.  Or blogging on a regular basis.  Or finally admitting that maybe it's time for me to go back to that dissertation, which I loved.  I just need to get that muscle back in shape.

Reviews with snark and Salem Witch Trials

At the end of October 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit. At the time, I was living in New Jersey, and though my apartment, car, and other possessions mostly escaped damage, I was among those who were left without electricity for days afterward. The day immediately afterward, especially before we were sure what was safe and how far we could venture without tempting danger, I had only books to keep me company. So I grabbed a pile of books I had been meaning to read and then huddled up, wrapped in a blanket, near the living room window with the best light.

That day I read two full books. One was a Dave Eggers book that I should probably re-read because I liked it and remember nothing. The other book was called The Beginners, and it purported to be a contemporary coming of age story with historical parallels to the Salem Witch Trials. I had seen a recommendation for it in one of the online literary magazines I used to peruse frequently. In other words: exactly the kind of book I would, more often than not, relish.

the beginners - rebecca wolff.jpg

But I hated it. After that day of reading, while guessing that classes would be cancelled for awhile and seeing that electricity probably wouldn't be restored soon, I got in my car and drove to my parents' house in Ohio. And I proceeded to log on to GoodReads and torch the book.

My review reads:

"I want to go back and find the person who recommended this book to me before I bought it a year ago and shake them. SHAAAAAAAAKE.

Reasons I bought the book (on deep discount, in a going bye-bye Borders): promise of ghosts, promise of New England coming of age for a bookish ginger girl, promise of history re: Salem Witch trials (my fav!).

Now... the ghosts and the Witch Trials are in peripheral bits that are not followed through on at all throughout the book, and the "coming of age" part is steeped in tremendously weird and, I felt, gratuitous sex, that also happens to be somewhat amoral, confusing, and (possibly) criminal. So... the book basically doesn't make any sense at all.

It's also one of those books that clearly is trying to seem literary- it sounds poetic. And sometimes this works for it. Sometimes the prose is beautiful. Other times, it's clunky and awkward because it's *so* obvious and deliberate. 

I could go on and on about the inconsistencies in the plot- if I had written this before I went to bed last night, I might have given it two stars, but now I've had time to sort it out and realize that nothing connects."

Somehow, that snarky, terrible, horrible, no-good review is the GoodReads review that keeps on living. Nearly five years later, I still get notifications that someone has "liked" it. I don't think I had ever really reviewed a book in print before, and I cringe when I read that review now. However, it's funny to me that other people keep reading it and finding it apt.

I can't remember much of anything about the plot of The Beginners now. Especially with things like mystery stories and magic/occult/mystical stories, so many of the details swirl together in my head. I am a person who can confuse an episode of Charmed with an Agatha Christie novel before my brain sorts it all out. What I vaguely remember is that the author did a bait-and-switch on her reader - the super sexy couple that entranced the teenage girl, teasing her with new experiences and also hints of witchcraft, just turned out to be crooked. Nothing mystical about them.

There's a part of me that wants to be the person who writes the truly great modern Salem Witch Trials novel, and the rest of me sympathizes with those who try, but fail, to get it right. The Beginners isn't the only attempt to bring the Salem Witch Trials into contemporary literature that I have read... and also hated. Yet The Beginners attempted to be more direct than the abstract, hysteria formulations in some of those other novels. 

In sum: it's not so much that I regret writing that review as that I might do it differently today.** I might talk about how disappointed I was that the author punted on the history she intended to evoke. Or why the Witch Trials resonate with women today - perhaps a comparison! A meditation on why I cannot spare the emotional labor necessary to watch The Handmaid's Tale. Or, I could write a memoir-ish post about why people like me remain fascinated by the Puritans and the culture that led to those events. I could talk about my visit to Salem, the peculiar bookstore there and the magnificent candy store, and the palpable feeling of place that transcended all the commercialization of that history.  But sometimes... sometimes there just needs to be some snark.


**unless there has recently been a terrifying hurricane, and I am super anxious and annoyed.