Exploring Ancestral Patterns in Memoir with Guest Lorraine Ash

Today I am pleased to have as my guest, Lorraine Ash, author of Self and Soul: Creating a Meaningful Life. Lorraine is sharing her thoughts on the ancestral patterns we inherit and how they impact our lives. Lorraine, thank you for being here today. And thank you to WOW! Women on Writing for hosting Lorraine's blog tour.

Our lives start with all kinds of inheritances. From ancestors, we receive genetic qualities, proclivities, aptitudes, beliefs. Maturing means interacting with all our inheritances, whether that involves embracing, rejecting, or modifying them. Odds are, we decide to keep some and not others.

That thought affirms the value of looking back in time to trace how we got to be who we are. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion evokes her ancestry even as she brings her readers deep into her.

As the grandchild of a geologist I learned early to anticipate the absolute mutability of hills and waterfalls and even islands. When a hill slumps into the ocean I see the order in it. …A hill is a transitional accommodation to stress, and ego may be a similar accommodation.

Following the trajectory of our experiences in regard to even one of our inheritances can provide a focus for a rich memoir in essay or book form. Such close scrutiny also can yield new insights about ourselves, which is no small gift.

A father/daughter story

Here’s an example of how I separated the strands of a thread of paternal family inheritance and wove them into my own life. I am like my late father in fundamental ways: I have a probing mind, an ability to sustain focus, the desire and discipline to explore a subject deeply, and an abiding concern for the well-being of the average person.

For my father, a career in the law was a calling—one he first heard when he was a poor kid on the streets of Jersey City, New Jersey, growing up without the benefit of parents. He had to fight for every piece of dignity, dingy boardinghouse room, and meal he got. When he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he even chose to be a boxer, like his father before him.

My father’s fiery temperament and fighting spirit served him well as he defended clients and argued cases in court. He pushed me toward the law, too, but it was not natural for me to use “our” traits in the same way. I have a more calm temperament and prefer analyzing and integrating information. As a journalist and author, I’m a natural.

I loved my father and intensely value and appreciate the traits I inherited from him. But I knew that love could morph into resentment and self-alienation if I allowed him to hijack my destiny.

Throwing a typewriter

So one day, as a teenager, as I was working in his law office, and he was pressuring me yet again to go to law school, I picked up the typewriter on which I’d been working, and threw it through the glass door of a bookcase.

“You will NOT tell me what I will do with my life!” I said.

That was the only act of physical violence I’ve ever committed. My anger detonated, uncharacteristically, to protect my very core.

“OK,” he said, quietly. “You don’t have to.”

Today, I think of that scene as a key turning point in my life, but it is much better understood in deep family context. My father wanted for me what worked for him. But his ancestors, largely by dint of not living up to their responsibilities, gave him two options: give up and drop out of high school, or fight like hell to rise above his circumstances. His anger toward his family also helped light his inner fire for social justice: he was all about helping others rise up.

By working in his law office as a young adult, I learned from him how to live archetypally—a gift of power. But his archetype was justice. Mine is truth.

When there is no family

Even when there is no family, or its members have scattered, the family still holds power. Indeed when there is no present dynamic, the actions of the ancestors may be all the self-inquiring writer has to work with. In Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed writes about the specter that her absentee father had become in her life.  Deep in the memoir, she breaks his spell over her:

… on that night as I gazed out over the darkening land fifty-some nights out on the PCT, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be amazed by him anymore.

The family tree, with its intergenerational traumas, gifts, and secrets, holds many fruits for memoirists. Our ancestors, a line of people that inevitably includes heroes and ne'er-do-wells, took the family story as far as they could.

It’s a mistake to focus so intently at their successes and wrongs that we neglect to see how we are continuing the story now. Writing memoir helps us see the past with new eyes and frees us to live into a new day.

Questions: A memoir is driven by some master question that concerns the writer. In Three Weeks with My Brother, Nicholas Sparks asks, essentially, Why am I like this? As the story unfolds, he links his own anxiety and exhaustion to his family story. Ask yourself, Why am I like this?

Lorraine Ash, M.A., is a New Jersey author, award-winning journalist, essayist, book editor, and writing teacher.  Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life, her second book, is available in a variety of formats and online stores, all presented here, http://lorraineash.com/selfsoul.htm . Reach Lorraine at www.LorraineAsh.com, www.facebook.com/LorraineAshAuthor , or @LorraineVAsh .

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Please come back next Thursday, August 28, 2014 when I review Lorraine's book, Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life.

To entice you to return, Women on Writing and the author have made a copy of Self and Soul available for a giveaway. Hope to see you then!

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