This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The 20-foot Ball of Yarn

            After more than a year of research and writing, The Borina Family of Watsonville, a history I did for that family’s foundation, will be published next month, and I expect it to make a modest contribution to the knowledge of local history in our area.
            A couple of months ago I blogged about how the research for the book sometimes seemed like chasing ghosts. That piece was about the difficulty of running down information on people who are all gone now, with few others remaining who knew them personally. The handful of people alive who still remember the Borinas will soon be gone themselves, but the book will keep the family’s memory alive to at least some small extent.
            There’s another issue involved in doing a family history like this, and it’s a paradox. In the course of running it down, the author comes across a heck of a lot of information, and massaging and condensing it into some sort of halfway interesting narrative is a true challenge.

The Histories Nobody Reads

            Quite a few people try their hand at writing a family history every year. Most of them can handle the first part of the job, which is ferreting out the information. Whether there’s a lot of information or a little, it’s generally available to anyone who can muster a bit of dogged persistence when it comes to going through raw materials — whether those are online sources or old-fashioned letters and diaries in a box in the attic.
            Figuring out what to make of it and how to use it is the rub, and that’s where family histories can turn unreadable.
In my case one storytelling challenge was that the family patriarch figured out a way to develop a lucrative market for apples in Asia during the 1930s. The details of how he did it eluded me; he never recorded the story, and whatever part of that story his daughters knew died with them.
            There was, however, a considerable body of work about developing markets for California fruit in Asia at the time. One 1930s article on the subject, which I encountered in an archive ran about as long as my entire book. How does something like that get worked into the story in a compelling fashion? (I used the gist of it and a piquant quote.)

The Great Unraveling

            It occurred to me at some point along the way that researching a book like this is a bit like picking up scraps of yarn here and there. At the end of the research process (and it ends when you decide it does, because in theory it could go on forever) you have a ball of yarn 20-feet in diameter.
            The writing process is about turning that enormous ball of yarn into a beautiful Christmas sweater with a reindeer pattern. In order to do that, you have to remember all the individual bits of yarn that went into the ball and spend a great deal of time and effort unraveling it in search of the bits you can use.
            Most of the yarn you’ve amassed never goes into the sweater, and some really nice material inevitably gets left behind. Part of writing involves being ruthless about leaving out good material that doesn’t fit your pattern. I seem to have a mind that’s naturally inclined to do that sort of thing, but I have no idea at all how I would go about trying to teach someone else to do it. All I know is that my way seems to work for me, and in a couple of months, we’ll find out if it works for the readers of the book as well.