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Taking a Lesson from Mark Twain and Johanna Skibsrud

Imagine, discovering your great-grandfather wrote his memoirs 100 years earlier. Or that your father's life story will be preserved and honoured in a novel for all to read. This past week a few things happened in the book world that I felt offers some inspiration to genealogists, and particularly to family historians who love to write and those of you who have been procrastinating.

First, the release of Mark Twain’s autobiography, written or rather dictated 100 years ago. This autobiography was released this week under his specific instructions not to be printed until 100 years after his death.

Then there is Johanna Skibsrud. Johanna is the winner of the 2010 Giller Prize, Canada’s leading literary prize, for her novel The Sentimentalists. There are couple of reasons that make Johanna’s success significant, the content of her novel, and the manner in which her book is being delivered to the public.  According to her publisher The Gaspereau Press,

“ Johanna Skibsrud’s debut novel connects the flooding of an Ontario town, the Vietnam War, a trailer in North Dakota and an unfinished boat in Maine. Parsing family history, worn childhood memories, and the palimpsest of old misunderstandings, Skibsrud’s narrator maps her father’s past.”

Johanna has taken her family history and more particularly her father’s personal stories from the Vietnam War and incorporated them into her fictional novel.

Both Mark Twain and Johanna Skibsrud have a lesson for us; write your story and the stories of your family.

Mr. Twain has given this world a gift in his autobiography. Have you given thought to how your own descendants would love to read or listen to your own story 100 years from now? You don’t need to be a Mark Twain, for this to happen. In addition, Johanna has reminded us that the greatest stories come from our families.

An interesting contrast between Mark and Johanna, Mr. Twain wrote his story 100 years ago, and today you can find it online, and in hard copy and audio. It is being mass-produced the world over. However, Johanna a 30 year old from Nova Scotia offers her hand-printed book by a small boutique-publishing house in Kentville, Nova Scotia. The Sentimentalists had no more than 800 books in print at the time of her receiving the Giller Prize Award last week. Last year’s Giller Prize winner, The Bishop’s Man sold over 70,000 copies.

At the time of this post, The Sentimentalists is due to be released November 19th through in hard copy only. You can pre-order now. Two very different approaches, while the 100 year old dead guy is being marketed to death (forgive the pun),  the young poet/novelist is sticking to an old-fashioned, organic approach.

Regardless, of their approach, the lesson is the same.

As a genealogist, the value in what what these writers have given us is golden. You don’t have to be a Mark Twain fan to know the importance in what he has done. However, as a genealogist, you certainly should appreciate it more than anyone should.

Take a lesson from Mark Twain; record your own life for future family historians. Dictate it or write it. The result is the same, a legacy to your family.

From Johanna Skibsrud your lesson; write your ancestors stories, whether incorporated into a fictional novel or as a family history book. The vehicle does not matter; the only thing that matters is that you write.