For the addenda of my Volume 4, I’m putting in some stuff that people have asked about. One is, “why did it take you so long to write this book when you started when you were 15?” Well I did start then, actually even earlier. And then over the years, kept finding more and more material, and knowing I’d told Grampa I was going to write a book, but never finding a way to start it—and the material kept rolling in! I’ve written about my various “starts” — and this might be of interest to writers and even nonwriters — the obvious way was to start at the beginning and just keep going. That’s what I’d done in my younger writing. Why did that not work? I couldn’t really tell where the beginning was. The same problem was starting at the end and then going back and picking up everything else, but I didn’t even know where the end was yet. There is always in media res, but where was the middle? I thought of making a three-tiered pancake. I had a lot of material on my dad’s growing up from his saving the drunk and the silo to the little girl who pulled down her pants to show him what she had (and he was too upset to reciprocate), and I had a lot on my and my sibs’ childhoods, from destroying the corn shocks in the interest of beauty and design to my bad time at the 4-H fair. The third pancake should be the grandkids’ experiences on the farm—but the only grandkids nearby had (so far) pretty limited experiences: we now have only a two-tiered pancake, which wasn’t enough pancakes when you consider there were lots more stories than childhood experiences. I tried using the five aims of the farm that were written on the silo, discovered I knew plenty about a couple of them, very little about “a stable market,” for instance, and was realizing that the last, “Life as well as a living,” was really the theme of the whole book and couldn’t be contained in one section. I finally stumbled on a solution: I won’t go into how, but it was to start yes, in media res, not in time but geography. Start with all the stories that primarily are gathered around the round barn, and then move out in concentric circles to the rest of the farm, the neighbors, the town, the county, and eventually the world. The theme of the book also made itself clear: the farm’s effect on the world and the world’s effect on the farm. Voila!
When people ask me about my writing all these family materials and how they should go about it, I tell them, especially kids and young students, to start right now keeping a journal and putting in interesting bits of what’s going on around them and what they think about these bits (their own thoughts and activities included, of course). Create scenes of action and speech. Also, ask their folks and sibs and neighbors and anybody old 🙂 THEIR memories and get them down. Of course, especially sibs won’t agree on details, but that’s part of the fun. And my dad always said, “Never spoil a good story for the facts.” So I confess, when I get conflicting stories, I choose the most likely or the most interesting, or as the author Robert Maxwell advises in his book Ancestors, “I use them both!”