Editor’s Desk #6

Oglesby Coal Company

How should one deal with gaps in an autobiographical narrative?

Subjects of my narrative lived for years with slight oral, documentary or photographic record. As the author I must deal with the relative void found more frequently than not. What’s missing may be as important to a broader history as what is passed down. There can also be conflict about anything that is said, even about what is known. An autobiography writer has to decide what and how to present these gaps in the narrative. Presenting a broader history is not always the point.

For example, my maternal grandmother was baptized in 1898. The next known date in her life was the birth of her first child in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1920. A couple of stories from her life on the farm survived. We don’t know when she married. Perhaps that date will be discovered. She had her second child in 1923. There are 20 years mostly void of record. There is no reason for an author to fill in the void, although one should acknowledge it.

Things known or passed down should be used as primary source material. That is more important than the missing record because what is known is what we lived with. As an example, we have a confirmation day photograph of one of grandmother’s sisters. That speaks to the way church-related events were special in their lives: a special outfit and a special portrait. Something like that is fair game for inclusion in my narrative even though it may not be specific to Grandmother. It informs cultural life on the farm.

Grandmother left home to work as a housekeeper in the Twin Cities, according to oral tradition. My cousins, the children of Grandmother’s first child, may have oral tradition passed down from their Minnesota origins. I don’t. I’m not sure how important those stories may be to my autobiography as they have not yet been part of my life. If we get together again, I’ll ask my cousins.

Some parts of the historical record exist and could be included. Things like birth, marriage and death dates. They create a time line upon which other things can be hung. Understanding twenty years of time, and identifying what Grandmother did during this period is difficult absent a historical record or oral tradition.

At least one historian studied the community my great, great grandparents helped found beginning in 1883. Things absent from oral tradition are included in those historical narratives: what subsistence farming was like, church life, social life, cooperative ventures, and others. The debate I have with myself is whether or not I would include historical work done by others, even if reasonably accurate, which lies outside oral tradition. It’s a choice which is useful if it explains background, not if it distracts from the primary narrative. I included a long piece on the Polish colony in Minnesota because it informs the life of my grandmother and by extension, mine.

Another example is my maternal grandfather’s work as a coal miner in LaSalle County, Illinois. We know he worked in the Cherry mine, and he worked long enough to contract black lung disease. Mother often told the story of him being a socialist and we didn’t really question it. Nor did we probe for additional details. The stories in a family’s oral tradition are fixed for the most part. I accepted them for what they were and try my best to retell them. Yet grandfather worked in the mine for a considerable amount of time and there are multiple histories of coal mining in Illinois which could possibly expand the narrative. Where I end on this is to tell what has been passed down in oral tradition and leave it there. The regional economic history is too complex to yield much specific to our family. In this case, I found it better to stay focused on my narrative.

Since I’m writing my autobiography, I have a wide range of options. The mistake historians sometimes make is to focus a narrative on what information is available. The autobiography writer lives in a different world with a canon of stories passed down orally. Because there is plenty about my life to tell, I want to keep the background information surrounding my family tree limited to what illuminates my character. I try to be faithful to the truth and to reality.

Some of the gaps will remain because empty space serves a purpose as important to narrative as the main thread. We needn’t fear a vacuum. We can appreciate what it adds to the story.

As of yesterday, there were 117,295 words written this year.