How Embracing Family History Can Result in Poignant Stories
There’s a lot of buzz in Pittsburgh right now about a PBS special called The Italian Americans. It’s not just running in Pittsburgh; I was able to watch the series here. I just don’t think people are talking about it here like they are at home. (Probably because my family and I are the only Italians in Arkansas. Hyperbole, anyone?)
My husband and I watch the History Channel a lot, so watching a documentary on PBS isn’t much different from our usual viewing. What was different, however, was my visceral response to the program. I was already aware of much of this history—my grandparents have shared some of their stories with me—but seeing it brought to life? Totally different. I thought I knew our history, but there was so much I was unaware of. Probably even more that you don’t know. You should check it out; it’s an honest portrayal of the good and the bad. I’m lucky my grandparents shared what they did. I’d love to hear even more.
When your grandparents tell you stories, they may make you laugh. They might make you cry. But they don’t often share their feelings about the events. It’s kind of like the hard parts are filtered out, like they’re trying to protect us—or themselves—from experiencing the pain.
It takes a special storyteller to not just scratch the surface but dig deep down to the heart of the issue. (Agree? Tweet this.)
That’s what I strive to be—a special storyteller. My history not only shapes me as a person, but it shapes me as a writer. (I think that’s true of all writers, to an extent. Writers often say their characters are a reflection of themselves in one way or another.) Not all of my characters are Italian-American, but all of them find familial bonds to be of the utmost importance. That’s my heritage, and that’s reflected in my writing.
When I write a story, I don’t want to scratch the surface; I want to dig deep down to the heart and soul of these characters and have them express powerful emotions brought on by their situations. I want to write words that make readers laugh, cry; feel outrage, indignation; question situations, opinions.
And when someone reads my work? I want them to experience everything right along with the characters.
Think about your favorite book. What did you respond most to? The plot? The setting? The characters? The next time you read that book—or any book—consider the hero of the story; consider the villain. Do you know enough about them to relate to their perceptions of the world? Does it matter if you can relate? Would you like to know more about them and their situations? What would make them more relatable?
Are you just scratching the surface in your work? You’ll know if you are by the level of comfort you feel. Telling deep, resonating stories requires you to leave your comfort zone and tap into the pool of emotions you’re used to suppressing. If reading your work doesn’t move you, it’s not going to move anyone else, either. My current WIP, Bleeding Heart, delves into Italian-American family life, and I’ve been able to enrich my characters by drawing on personal experience.
I’m a family person. If you’ve followed my blog or read my work, you know family and history is important to me. What about you? Do you know where you come from, what your history is, how it’s shaped the person you’ve become? Do you prefer stories that barely get into a character or do you enjoy the ones that dig, even to the point of exposing raw nerves? Let’s talk about it. Comment below.