Taking the Risk to Write Deeply About Your Family History

Benjamin Vogt with family, standing in front of the homestead (1980s)

Note from Jane: This fall, I’m delighted to be offering a 10-week course on writing about your family, taught by writer and professor Benjamin Vogt. Benjamin has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, an MFA from Ohio State University, and has taught nearly 60 English classes while receiving four awards for his work with students. Benjamin’s writing has appeared in over 50 publications, such as Creative Nonfiction, Orion, and The Sun, as well as in eight anthologies, including The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (University of Iowa Press).

For years I’ve been working to discover my life. Wait. I mean writing a memoir. Wait. I mean researching where I come from and who I carry with me. Lots of recent research shows that emotional and other psychological trauma can be passed on genetically to future generations; if these experiences can be passed on, what others might linger in my blood or color the way I act or think or perceive the world? Who am I?

I spent the first ten years of my life in Oklahoma, and every time we went back to visit family after moving to Minnesota, it was complete gut-wrenching torture. As soon as we crossed the border from Kansas, the soil turned red and my heart sank. For most of my life I hated Oklahoma and the small town I came from, filled with old people and old stories and backwater tendencies. When we unearthed thousands of photos cleaning out my grandmother’s house in my twenties, I suddenly realized how little I knew about myself, how important it was to know where I was from, how much I’d want to know as I got older but was quickly losing. I hoarded black-and-white pictures of people and places no one recognized, each one an ember I would stoke. It took years after my grandmother’s passing for me to leap into Oklahoma like she had always wanted, to discover just how wonderfully complicated that home was, and how to honor a past (and myself) that I misunderstood.

It was not and still is not an easy journey, and it took all sorts of research to develop stories that opened up the well of writing within me. I also have had to come to terms with the fact that what I’m writing will upset some people—exploring how my ancestors helped destroy other cultures, from Native Americans to prairie wildlife, is an essential part of honestly and authentically knowing who we are and living better lives. Bravery, and a better story, comes with research.

Prairie Dogs
Prairie dogs

I interviewed my great aunts and learned about farm life—making sausages with pig intestines, Sunday ice cream socials, a chivaree gone bad after chickens were let loose in a house, how each windmill has a distinct voice. I heard the story of my grandmother, who as a child witnessed the spirit of her own grandmother lift up through the bedroom floor on out the window late one night when she passed away. I got tours of various homesteads, walked fields where I cried and touched the same rusted barn light switches my family once touched.

I visited regional libraries and churches to learn about my Mennonite heritage, the persecution of Mennonites in Europe, their immigration and integration into American culture. I discovered that a fire had destroyed the church record book, the genealogy for many families dating back centuries, except for those few pages that held my family’s history. I now know who “died of diarrhea” in the 1700s.

I read one hundred books on Mennonites, prairie, wildlife, Oklahoma’s cultural history, outlaw gangs, oil, Native Americans, Custer’s attack on a Cheyenne village (where peace chief Black Kettle’s body floated down the same creek my grandmother was baptized in decades later).

I walked Oklahoma’s diverse landscapes, from prairie to sagebrush to mountains buried up to their necks, to salt flats and bat caves and hills shimmering with crystals. It took my breath away. These travels even helped my marriage, sharing those spaces with my wife, learning about my past together.

Glass Mountains
Glass Mountains

And when I began putting it all together I discovered my story in the stories of complete strangers, related or not. I found the story of our country and the Great Plains I’ve called home most of my life. I’m still finding the stories as I bear witness through language, a language that time fades and warps and twists until truth is a strange, exhilarated mingling of fact and fiction; such a mingling defines who we are when we take the great risk to look deeply at our lives.

Learn more about Benjamin’s 10-week course, All in the Family, starting September 28.

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