Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Good Question!

Terry Thornton in a comment to my post Creative Non-Fiction - Factual & Fascinating asks this question:

I wish, however, you had shown how this fascinating glimpse is to be woven into your specific family history. In other words, how do you make the transition from what is "REAL" family history within the "CREATIVE NON-FICTION" you are writing."

The master of creative non-fiction or narrative literature is David McCullough. The finest example of how creative non-fiction can be used to write family history can be found in the family history section of Truman, my favorite of McCullough's books.

He writes about the history of Missouri and sets the stage for the story of the Truman family. Read this, as it is much more eloquent than my explanation.

Here is an example of the family history:

Mattie's first child, a boy, was stillborn the couple's first autumn in Lamar. A year and a half later a second child, a boy, was born in a bedroom off the parlor so small there was barely space for the bed. . .

The date was May 8, 1884.

. . . Not for a month afterward, however, did Dr. Griffin bother to register the birth at the county clerk's office up the street, and even then, the child was entered nameless. . .

Harry S. Truman he would be.

For me there is no transition, no line of demarcation. It is all one story. The family history is incorporated with the characters of New York City and Carnegie Hall. These are my first attempts at creative non-fiction and are a first draft, so please be kind. I don't think writing creative non-fiction is difficult, it just takes some getting used to.

I start each section or chapter with a vignette. The Cornerstone vignette in my earlier post was the intro to my discussion of the character, New York City. Here is where I went next:

It was 1890 and the entirety of Manhattan Island was now New York City. Ninety thousand residential buildings and twenty-five thousand commercial structures covered the city. Church steeples dominated New York’s skyline, as most buildings constructed were not over three stories tall. The tallest building in the city was the 284-foot spire of Trinity Church, taller even than the Brooklyn Bridge.

New York City was not just the industrial and economic center of 19th Century America; New York had also claimed the leadership role in America’s cultural life. The theater had taken hold in New York City and the music world was poised to join the battle for dominance with the established music houses of Europe. The Philharmonic Society, founded in 1842 – and the Metropolitan Opera Company, founded in 1882, had made their home there, but at this time there was no central home for symphonic music.

Steinway and Chickering, the companies that manufactured the pianos used in performances, each owned and operated independent music halls. The halls were small and it was acknowledged that the acoustics were terrible. For a pianist to perform, he must first swear allegiance to a particular brand of piano and once done he was the captive of that piano and that hall. No musician was satisfied with these arrangements, but it was what it was.

A young conductor, Walter Damrosch, convinced the philanthropic Andrew Carnegie of New York’s cultural need for a permanent home for the philharmonic. That led to the creation of America’s most beloved institution, Carnegie Hall. In 1889, Carnegie formed a stock company, The Music Hall Company of New York, Ltd. He acquired seven parcels of land that created a square along the block of Seventh Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets. The streets were unpaved and the location, at the edge of Goat Hill, near Central Park, was so far uptown it was considered out in the sticks.

The soon to be built Music Hall’s nearest neighbors were the Hotel Grenoble just across the street, the Dickel’s Riding Academy on the west side of Seventh Avenue, blacksmiths, and saloons. Elaborate private stables on Fifty-sixth Street stood at the backs of dignified residences on Fifty-seventh Street. In 1889, Fifty-ninth was becoming a street of fashionable residences. Carnegie had the foresight to see that in a few short years the Hall’s neighbors would be its potential audience. But at the start of construction, the owners of the dignified residences were appalled at the thought of living near “an amusement center, where carriage calls would disturb the rural quiet of the street.”

There was much abject grumbling, discontent, and speculation voiced by the New York press over the chosen location for the soon to be constructed temple to the Goddess of Music. There were only 575 paved streets in the City lit by twenty-eight thousand streetlamps, almost all of which were electrified, but none of these conveniences ventured past Goat Hill. Travel around the City in 1890 was accomplished in landaus, landaulets and hansom cabs; open, unheated, bone jarring modes of transportation.

There is a good deal more written in this section. Next I travel to opening night at Carnegie Hall:

. . .The carriages had begun lining up on Fifty-Seventh Street early and the hall was completely full before the time set for the program to start. There were no late arrivals on this occasion. It seemed as if everyone in New York had become enthusiastic music lovers, or at least enthusiastic over the opening of what many were now calling the most beautiful music hall in the world. They were not to be disappointed.

The seating capacity in the Hall was enormous, far larger and superior to the Metropolitan Opera House. There was seating on the ground floor, two horseshoe circles of boxes, a dress circle, and a gallery. Possession had even been taken of every foot of standing space. The Hall was filled to capacity. So frightening was the sight of so many people to the architect, Tuthill, he immediately left the Hall and went home to rework the numbers to ensure the building could withstand the weight.

Next I discuss the day to day workings of Carnegie Hall including this section on the character of Carnegie himself and his wife:

Carnegie had never hidden his distrust of the musician’s business sense. He continued to make up the operating shortfall, but did so grudgingly. Having reached the end of his patience, just after the turn of the century, Carnegie revolted. He sent his secretary out to find some other wealthy person to contribute half of the expected yearly payment. The secretary left and returned in a few hours with the necessary amount. Carnegie quickly wrote out a matching check. “You see,” he told his secretary, “we only have to ask. Who is our generous new benefactor?” As the secretary turned to leave the room he replied, “Mrs. Carnegie, sir.”

My family's life was Carnegie Hall. Here is where Louis Salter enters the story:

A twenty year old apprentice electrician named Louis Salter arrived at the Music Hall for his first day of employment. Salter was typical of the average New Yorker of 1893. He lived in a tenement surrounded by Irish, German and Jewish neighbors. Both his parents, John and Elizabeth (Wurtz) Salter had been born in Germany.

John and Elizabeth made the voyage from Germany to England where they stopped long enough to have three children and save the money needed to continue on to America. It was a common practice among German immigrants to live for a short time in England. To work and save money. The Salters were no different.

Louis was the second of their children to be born in American, in New York City, December 18, 1873. . .

Everything is factual, but written as creative non-fiction. (The relationship charts are added to the appendices for all the statistical information.)

Here is an example of Louis Salter as Superintendent of Carnegie Hall and a piece I'm using as another vignette:

Traffic Policeman Pounds enters Carnegie Hall and heads for Louis Salter’s office in the basement. Louis Salter is the manager of Carnegie Hall and it is very important that Pounds speak with him. Standing outside, Pounds witnessed a group of Irishmen gathering on the corner. He is aware that Sir Phillip Gibbs, the British war correspondent, is lecturing in the Hall tonight on “What America Means To The World.” He suspects that the Irishmen are Sinn Fein and are at the Hall to disrupt the lecture.

Pounds tells Salter of the Irish gathering outside the Hall. Salter telephones the Fifty-seventh Street Police Station, explains the situation and asks that reserves be sent to the Hall.

Sir Phillip is about fifteen minutes into his lecture when the audience breaks into groans, hisses, boos, and “squeaks resembling hundreds of caged mice.” The reception is not quite what he had anticipated.

The audience quiets down and Sir Phillip begins again. This time someone in the audience yells, “What about Ireland?” A man springs from his seat in the gallery, tackles the interrupter, throws him to the floor and jumps on him. Sinn Fein supporters, men and women, leap onto the pile in a kicking yelling swearing mass.

At the same time Salter meets the police reserves at the entrance in the front of the house and escorts them to the gallery. The noise can even be heard out front; the fight is well underway.

It doesn’t take the police long to round up about fifteen men and women involved in the altercation. Salter confronts them and asks them to leave; the police escort the Sinn Fein demonstrators from the Hall.

The disturbance squelched, the lecture ends without further interruption. Salter heads to a small room off the Hall to check on the well-being of his guest lecturer who is meeting with well wishers. As Salter enters, Sir Phillip is being besieged by his friends complimenting him on his gameness, Salter is satisfied the night has been a success.

Again, everything is factual, taken from an account in the New York Times and a book published about Carnegie Hall.

I'm just an amateur practicing creative non-fiction, but I love it. The more I do, the more comfortable I become. Source everything you write and stick to the facts. Tell a good story.

Hopefully my family history will be the kind my Aunt Jean has asked for, "Tell me the stories."



Blogger Randy Seaver said...

Genea-smacked, I am!

Good work, I think. Impressive.

I could never do that - I still think I'm an engineer.

July 23, 2008 at 11:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is great!
I love the form and hope to incorporate it.

fM, you're the BOMB!

"Guided by the Ancestors"

July 24, 2008 at 11:43 AM  
Blogger Lidian said...

Absolutely fantastic! "Please, may I have some more?"

July 24, 2008 at 3:06 PM  
Blogger Terry Thornton said...

Thanks, Maven, for such an in-depth answer. Please tell us when you publish so that we may buy a copy and read your stories --- most interesting!

Creative non-fiction is most "creative" in your hands and you've got me hooked on the story already. Thanks for showing how you are approaching the task. When and where do I buy my copy (hopefully an autographed one)?

July 24, 2008 at 4:14 PM  
Blogger Lori Thornton said...

I'm joining the line for your book!

July 24, 2008 at 5:32 PM  
Blogger Jasia said...

Your family history seems to be coming along very nicely :-) Good for you!

For me, I'm thinking this genre won't work. But it was certainly worth considering and would definitely have made for a more interesting family history than what I'll come up with. My stumbling block would be the "exhaustive research" necessary to pull this off. The vast majority of my family's history is in Poland, and the sources I'd need to consult to be accurate without taking liberties, would all be written in Polish (which I can't read). I'd have to hire a researcher/translator to take on the research task and that would require more time and money than I'm willing to invest.

July 24, 2008 at 7:23 PM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...

Thank you all for your wonderful confidence building comments.

I seem to remember a joke about wanting to be the person your dog thinks you are.

Well, I hope I can be the person my friends think I am.


July 24, 2008 at 8:45 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

This is great stuff! My families eyes glaze over with I start talking family history and my sisters are always getting the facts wrong. If I can write it like this, it will get read and the correct facts might be remembered. (At least they'd all have a book to go look them up in!)

Thanks so much. You are an inspiration.

July 25, 2008 at 5:17 PM  
Blogger Bob Franks said...

Very good post. I am a big fan of creative non-fiction in genealogy. To me mere dates and facts can become bland and boring. Incorporating history and colorful narrative into a genealogy brings a genealogical work alive and makes it more entertaining as well as informative. Rather than just mere facts and dates showing who and when, using creative narrative can add such components as how and why and can make a work more appealing to a wider audience. If Richard Gillentine moved to Mississippi from Alabama in 1842 I want to know WHY he moved, HOW he got here, what times were like that year, what was going on at the time, HOW folks lived at time, etc. etc. Such information brings mere facts and dates alive. Great work with your post. I visit your blog regularly and always find interesting information.

July 27, 2008 at 6:11 AM  
Blogger Chery Kinnick said...

Better late in commenting than never. Maven, you grossly underestimate your talents. McCullough has nothing on you...

July 28, 2008 at 11:27 AM  

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