This is a guest post Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, CG, MFA
Humor. It’s a wonderful and complex part of life, but can be tricky to include in your family history. What’s funny when told aloud may not be as funny—or funny at all—on paper, partly because you can’t hear inflections in the storyteller’s voice or see her facial expressions and body language. And, of course, humor is subjective. What’s funny to one person might not be funny to someone else.
Your ancestors might have left, intentionally or unintentionally, funny accounts of themselves or humorous quotes in historical documents, such as letters, diaries, newspaper articles, court records, or pension applications. Or, during an oral history interview, you might have a relative who’s a particularly good storyteller and infuses family stories with humor. These are all naturally occurring humorous pieces that will enliven your family history.
But what if you have a particularly serious group of ancestors, yet you’re the one with the sense of humor? How do you add humor? Put yourself into the narrative. Most family history writers use a “detached narrator,” that is, a writer who tells the story objectively and doesn’t inject himself into the story by using the first person I. To add humor, though, you, the narrator, become part of the story. You’ll tell your family history from the first person point of view.
For example, say you made a trip to Ireland to see where your great-grandfather lived. But on the way to the rural homesite, you got your car stuck in a muddy ditch, had to have a local farmer pull you out, then when you tried to follow the directions he gave you, you took the wrong fork in the road where he told you to turn left at the sheep with a red dot on his rump. Or the time you went cemetery hopping to find your Civil War ancestor’s grave, and you tripped on a sunken footstone and broke your ankle. Or the time you pulled a roll of microfilm from the box, lost your grip and watched it unroll down the aisle. By putting these escapades into the story and making fun of yourself and the situations, you’ll add humor to your family history.
Along with this type of self-deprecation, exaggeration is another technique to make something funny. When I went to Italy looking for DeBartolo cousins, several people in my ancestral town told me there were two DeBartolo branches. The minute I walked into the door of the first DeBartolo house and was greeted by a man who loomed yards above me, I knew this wasn’t my branch. When I found members of the other branch and the adults looked as if they’d walked off the munchkin set of the Wizard of Oz, I knew I had the right family.
In real life, the first DeBartolo man didn’t loom yards above me—he was maybe six feet tall—and the people in the other branch, while about a foot shorter than I like my petite Italian grandmother, weren’t dwarfs. I’ve exaggerated their features to add some humor. This isn’t fictionalizing; by the words I’ve chosen, the reader can tell I’m exaggerating.
Humor works best when it’s organic, derived out of the situation and when you can poke fun of yourself. There is a difference, though, between writing with witty humor and writing comedy. Comedy—wisecracks and stand-up jokes—usually takes little intelligence for the listener or reader to get. Wit, on the other hand, is more sophisticated and requires some thought, both to write and to appreciate. This is what you’re going for in your family history.
Read Sharon’s humorous nonfiction piece, “Switched at Midlife,” which won “Most Memorable,” in Hippocampus Magazine at http://www.hippocampusmagazine.com/category/most-memorable/.
Visit Sharon’s new website: NonfictionHelp.com. She will be teaching Focus on the Personal/Family Memoir through Writer’s Digest University, beginning March 29.
More about Sharon:
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is a Certified Genealogist with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing. She is a partner in the Salt Lake City-based research, writing, and publishing firm of Warren, Carmack & Associates. Sharon offers consulting, mentoring, writing, and editing services for nonfiction books, with an emphasis on memoirs, biographies, histories, family histories, and annotated diaries.
The author of sixteen books and hundreds of articles, columns, and reviews that have appeared in nearly every major genealogical journal and publication, some of Sharon’s book titles include You Can Write Your Family History, Carmack’s Guide to Copyright & Contracts, and Your Guide to Cemetery Research.
Her work has also appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, Steinbeck Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Writer’s Digest, and Personal Journaling. She is an assistant editor for Brevity and a contributing editor for Family Tree Magazine.
Along with a BA (summa cum laude) in English from Regis University and an MFA (with Distinction) in Creative Nonfiction Writing from National University, Sharon holds a Diploma in Irish Studies from the National University of Ireland, Galway.
Sharon teaches nonfiction writing classes for Writer’s Digest University, and Irish research classes for Family Tree University.
Sharon can be reached through her Web site: www.SharonCarmack.com.