An Editor’s Perspective: Using Primary Sources, Part 1

Roseanne Rini, SCN Editorial Service, #5

[Story Circle Network’s Editorial Service gives you easy access to a team of professional editors. These editors are attuned to the stories women write — both fiction and memoir. Your manuscript deserves respect…the best treatment…and an editor who understands you. That’s why SCN Editorial Service exists. When you’re ready for an editor, we’re ready for you.

Roseanne Rini is one of these professional editors. Today she’s sharing her thoughts on use of primary materials as you research and write your memoir. Then join Roseanne on where she provides practical tips for using primary sources.

–Matilda Butler, Women’s Memoirs]


Using Primary Sources
Roseanne Rini, SCN Editor

In my last post I wrote about using one’s journal as a source to be “mined” for the telling of one’s story. In this post I’d like to discuss ways letters, diaries or oral history interviews may serve as sources for the telling of another woman’s story. Two contemporary examples are Half-Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls and The Red Leather Diary, by Lily Koppel. Walls, author of the memoir The Glass Castle, wrote a novel based on the life story of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. Although her grandmother had died when Jeannette was eight, her mother, Rosemary, remembered in great detail the stories Lily had told her about her life. Walls interviewed her mother, then put together her grandmother’s life history based on these stories.

Koppel discovered the diary of Florence Wolfson when a New York hotel was clearing out its basement, which had been packed with steamer trunks from the twenties and thirties. Koppel hired an investigator to determine if Wolfson was still alive, and if so where she lived. After a three-year search, Wolfson was found, then a woman of ninety living in Florida. Her diary had covered five years of her life, from the ages of fifteen to nineteen (1929-1934). Koppel wrote the story of Wolfson’s life, especially during those years, on the basis of this diary and interviews with Wolfson.

Walls chose to tell the story in the first person, hoping to recapture her grandmother’s voice, which she remembered. While it was based on the facts of Lily’s life, the story was filtered through her daughter, Rosemary’s, memory, voice and point of view. And, because there were gaps in the story, Walls had to fill them in with her own imagination. For these reasons, Walls calls her book “A True-Life Novel.”

Koppel, in contrast, was dealing with actual texts written by Wolfson when she was a young woman as well as the texts of her interviews with her. Like Walls, her strategy was to create a narrative, in this case based on a diary, but she had the advantage of live interviews to complete the story. Koppel narrates Wolfson’s story, beginning with her own life and her discovery of the diary, and includes excerpts from it throughout. She also writes, “My feelings of uncertainty about whether I had it in me to become a writer, my striving for recognition and search for love, connected me to the young woman of the diary” (277). In The Red Leather Diary, Koppel is thus telling her own story as well as Wolfson’s.

Both Walls and Koppel wanted to evoke particular periods of American history, and particular regions. In Walls’ case, it was homesteading and ranching in the American Southwest in the early twentieth century. In Koppel’s, it was the “bohemian” life in “old New York” in the twenties and thirties. Even more important, Walls wanted to create a portrait of a tough, independent, resourceful woman determined to survive and to seek what she called her “Purpose”; a teacher who challenged authority in any form; a pioneer woman who defied traditional female roles and who took her equal place beside her husband, not only in raising a family but in running a ranch. Walls selected and organized stories from the interviews to most effectively illustrate these themes.

Koppel saw in the Wolfson of the diary “. . . a smart and headstrong New York teenager, a young woman who loved Baudelaire, Central Park, and men and women with equal abandon”. She was a young woman who had wanted a life in the arts, but, as Koppel learned later, her dreams were thwarted. Koppel wove the narrative to highlight this theme, selecting those diary entries that were most pertinent. In giving her book the subtitle: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal, and describing the effect rediscovering the diary had on Wolfson, she suggests the possibility of connecting with earlier selves and becoming, as Wolfson said later, “true to” oneself at any age.

Primary materials are fertile sources of historical and cultural information. Even more important for our purposes, they also suggest diverse ways, not only of thinking and writing about, but also living, a woman’s life.

For some practical tips on using primary sources, please go to Women’s Memoirs.

You may also be interested in Roseanne Rini’s blog on journaling.

Roseanne Rini

Roseanne Rini: I’ll be sharing some of my insights as an editor in this and future blogs. As a member of SCN’s Editorial Service, I look forward to the opportunity of editing a chapter or a manuscript that you feel is ready for the helping hand and watchful eye of an editor.

Click Here for more information on SCN’s Editorial Service.

Want to know what I like most about editing? I love to read and I love to interact with others around the written word. Editing intensifies both experiences because it demands that I pay close attention to what I am reading and that I enter into a dialogue with the writer.

I also love language, playing with word choices, phrases and sentences so that they most effectively express what is intended. It is a joy and a privilege to participate in another writer’s process, to facilitate another person’s self-expression.

Here’s a little background information about me.

I have a Ph.D. in English and thirty-four years of experience teaching college English and Women’s Studies courses, most of which have required a considerable amount of writing. As a result of my teaching experience, I have developed strong analytical and editing skills. I have especially enjoyed working with students individually to improve their writing skills.

I bring to my reading of any manuscript a knowledge of what are considered the “classics” of American and British literature in addition to a special interest in and familiarity with nineteenth and twentieth century as well as contemporary women writers, many of whom I have taught in both my Women’s Studies and English courses. I am especially interested in women’s memoirs and I am currently writing a memoir of my own.

A life-long journal-keeper, I am also very interested in the role writing plays in personal growth, healing and spirituality and have found my own journals to be critical to these processes. The search for identity and autonomy is in my experience greatly facilitated by the keeping of journals, which may then serve as rich sources for personal essay and memoir. The issue of identity is especially interesting to me within the contexts of gender and ethnicity, specifically Italian American ethnicity.

Reading and writing are central to my life, both my work and my pleasure.

2 responses to “An Editor’s Perspective: Using Primary Sources, Part 1

  1. Roseanne,

    Thanks for this post from your editor’s perspective. Women’s stories–especially historical ones–often took the form of letters and diaries. Women memoir writers might like to check out Women Writing the West in novels, memoir, and poetry. I attended a good session at one of their conferences about several projects housed in the Autry Library archives in Los Angeles.

    Your post also relates to “Harvesting”–a current passion of mine.

    Janet Riehl

  2. Thanks, Janet, for your comment. When are these conferences held? I would love to visit the Autry Library and browse through their archives.
    Your comment reminded me of a few other titles readers might find interesting: Letters of a Woman Homesteader, by Elinore Pruitt Stewart; Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel; and Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier by Joanna L. Stratton.

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