Creative Process

Falling down a rabbit hole when writing a book

I have been preoccupied for the past five months, rewriting my book about my family history, The Hope Chest, and relaunching the website of the book. I did it for two reasons: firstly, new software made it possible to see the mistakes I had made in previous genealogy charts, and secondly, I was rather tired of seeing the artwork that I had created published all over the internet. Stealing my family photos is bad but using them without crediting me is worse. I love to share the genealogical information I have with other descendants out there, but the information that took me years to research and write is mine, as much as the contents of any book is.

Pigheaded and bloody-minded

I therefore purposefully rebuilt the site to make it difficult to copy from and find (the opposite of what you are usually told to do with a website): no posts, no tags, no categories, no hyperlinks of any kind, inbound or outbound. (Yes, I’m pigheaded and bloody-minded in that way. Apparently, many of my family members are too.) And most of the images have a copyright watermark on them. I would like to see what happens to those images, once they cannot be found so easily by the search engine crawlers. So this site will get no hits, no visitors, I expect no views and no likes or comments. That is just fine, so long as members of the families in the book can get useful information from it. Genealogy aficionados tend to be very determined – they endlessly trawl the Internet, finding and recording minute details of long-dead people. They will find this site, no doubt.

After having painstakingly created descendant family trees, charts, “Ahnentafels” (ancestor lists) and registers of more than 300 individuals, and having restored at pixel-level at least 20 badly damaged photos dating from the 1880s and the early 1900s, I realized I had only started on the supporting evidence. It being a website, I also created the headers, gallery images, maps and videos for the site.

Now what remains is to go back to paper and have it printed. Which I may or may not do, because this time around, the book is not for sale.

Why make a book?

And all for what? Well, it’s an odd – and enlightening – thing to suddenly see, when you are patching up, filling out and cleaning an old photo, a face emerging from it that looks suspiciously like…you. And it is gratifying when you realize that some of the stories your parents told you were undoubtedly lies, but others turned out to be true and even stranger than you could have imagined. It’s like that TV show, Who Do You Think You Are, only there’s no-one famous, wealthy or important to discover. Just people. People who bear a family resemblance, but considering all the adoptions and remarriages, that is a self-fulfilling prophecy, or wishful thinking. Nevertheless, I got a sense of belonging to a tribe, which is a nice thing when you are far away from where you grew up and you are the last of your line.

My inquisitiveness aside, I hate loose ends and unfinished work. I wanted to finish this history as much as I wanted to scratch an itch that just wouldn’t go away.

Edits, damn edits

One thing is for sure: that old adage of a book being as good as the number of times it’s been edited, it true. Time after time, edition after edition, whenever I thought I was done, I found another mistake; a whole raft of mistakes just came from the translation of the material from Afrikaans into English (and Dutch, German and French into English). And then there were the typos, grammar and spelling mistakes, inverted numbers, formatting mistakes, sometimes just complete mistakes in logic as if my brain had gone on holiday. I mean, a child cannot be born decades after his birth mother had died, can he? I was looking right at that date a gazillion times and it never dawned on me that it’s wrong.

Yes, yes – the PAW2U software pointed out the obvious mistake in red. Did I fix it? Nope.

If you read the website and find more mistakes, I don’t want to know. I’ve had it. I’ve gone quite mad from all those genealogy entries. The mistakes are the result of moments of inattention – a mere moment is enough when every word and number matters, and when the structure is as complicated as a spider’s web. The deeper you go into it, the worse it gets. It’s really like falling down a rabbit hole, like “Alice” did in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. More and more threads and incidents emerge, and some of them are plain bonkers!

All that editing and rewriting eventually made the book something it had not been in the beginning. It became a reference work, written rather formally, full of dates and tables, rather than the story, the memory, that my mother told me when I was much younger. Much of the emotion, the nostalgia, was edited out. Genealogical studies tend to be that way – it’s a rather clinical and finicky process if you want to do it right.

Dear Authors, my sympathy and apologies

My absolute and profound sympathy therefore, go to authors labouring away at their novels. I hope your books don’t get mangled by all that editing, and that they get better, not worse. And I’m sorry for ever underestimating the amount of hard labour involved. Sorry. My bad.

I read two unpublished novels by debut authors in the past few months, and in both cases, I could see the undoubted passion and talent for story-telling, the clever ways the authors had portrayed their characters, and the messages they wanted me to understand. In both cases, my sad conclusion was that the books needed a lot more editing, a lot more polishing of the language, if the authors wanted to put them out there for sale. In this case, even my loads of sympathy couldn’t change the simple fact: a grammar mistake is a grammar mistake. A malapropism is a malapropism.

I just hope they find an editor who will be kind when they edit, and who will love their books as much as they do. And I hope they find readers who will not just copy and paste their carefully created worlds without crediting them, and who will give thoughtful, considered feedback.

So, as of now, it’s back to writing book reviews; kinder, gentler book reviews. Lesson learned.


About the header: The Man Made Mad with Fear, unfinished gouache on paper sketch by Courbet (1843-1844, National Gallery of Norway).

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