Friday, March 11, 2011

Why I Do This

I mentioned I had some thoughts and analysis from my trip to Utah to share. I really can’t stand sentimentality (the chicken-soup-for-the-soul approach to writing), but at the risk of being sentimental, here goes anyway.

On the way home from my Utah trip last Sunday, Christian fell asleep about thirty minutes into the second flight. This left me in the position of trying to hold as still as possible for the next couple of hours so as not to disturb him. It sounds simple enough – but it’s not. Any position on an airplane with a twenty-three pound toddler draped over you gets uncomfortable quickly. I was much too uncomfortable to sleep. I had brought a book (One Year Off: Leaving it All Behind for a Round-the-World Journey With Our Children by David Elliott Cohen – I like to pretend I am someday going to follow in his footsteps…) but after an hour or so I was too uncomfortable even to read (balancing the book and supporting Christian at the same time was giving me arm cramps). This left me sitting there with nothing to do except ponder the meaning of life – or at least ponder the events of the last week or two. Specifically, it left me pondering why I do this (referring to writing and genealogy research, not sitting on airplanes with toddlers draped over me).

I’ll tell you up front it’s not for the money. I’m sure this doesn’t come as surprise to any of you, but neither genealogy or writing as a career path is likely to make you wealthy. If you are wise with your choices in your genealogy career you can make a decent amount of money and if you are wildly talented or lucky (or probably both), you can make an absurd amount of money as a writer. But in general, there are more efficient ways to get ahead in the rat race. Maybe I overestimate myself, but I feel fairly confident that I could make more money doing something else.

It is because I enjoy doing it? Well yes – I do enjoy it. I love writing and I love doing research. I find it exhilarating to speak to groups about writing and doing research. But for all those wonderful moments, there are plenty of moments of frustration, rejection, and just plain exhaustion. I don’t think enjoyment really explains it either.

It would be nice to say that I do it in order to do something that matters in the world. I feel like helping families connect to one another and learn about their heritage is important. I had people during the week tell me that my book had inspired them to want to learn about their families. That was wonderful to hear. But I’m not sure if I am altruistic enough to be solely motivated based on this. (Although maybe I should claim that I am…)

As I was thinking about the week, my mind settled on one experience that I think best sums up why I do it. It’s an experience I mentioned briefly in my last post. I was sitting in the West Jordan bookstore last Friday at a book signing at Seagull Bookstore. And although I probably shouldn’t admit this, let’s just say book signings are definitely not the reason I do this. I hadn’t been there very long when a woman came up and introduced herself. She had emailed me before and mentioned that she might come to my signing – but truthfully, in all the hustle and bustle of the trip and lectures and preparations, I had forgotten.

This woman was a descendent of Georg and Mina Albrecht, the couple on the cover of my book, also – a distant cousin of mine who I had never heard of before her email. We talked about the book for a while and about her memories of the family.

She said, “Well, you’ve certainly done a lot of work on this. A LOT of hard work.”

And I answered with my ready-answer that I say whenever someone says this. “Yes. It has been a lot of work. But it wasn’t hard work. I enjoyed it. I got so much out of it.”

Then she asked, “So, I just want to know. Why did you do it? Why did you write this book? You could have written about so many other things – even so many other ancestors. Why them?”

It had been so long since I had thought about that. Lately I think about pitches and sales and conferences and newspaper articles (and sometimes even overdue blog posts). I don’t think anymore about why I did it.

I sat there for a while and then I said. “I don’t know.”

She looked perplexed by my answer. Finally I added, “Maybe because they had a story that needed to be told. They had a story that I didn’t know.”

Then she leaned closer to me and her eyes got watery. “I just want you to know how much this book has meant to me.”

And that’s the scene I thought of on the plane as Christian made my right hand go tingly from smashing it flat against the arm rest and cutting off the circulation.

If the conclusion you came to after reading my experience is that I do this for my ancestors (to tell their story) or for this woman (because it meant a lot to her), then you are wrong on both counts.

What I realized is that I do this because of the way I felt right at that moment in the Seagull Bookstore. I suppose I do it because of the meaning it brings into my own life. And that’s why I’ll probably continue doing this (despite claiming on a regular basis that I’m going to find another profession…).

Unless of course I find someone who wants to fund sending my family on a year-long trip around the world… In that case, I would happily switch to being a professional traveler – at least for a year.


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