I love the word “remember.” It means to bring together the pieces of your life, your legacy, the wisdom of those who have gone before you. Whether we realize it or not, as we live our lives we’re passing on traditions—through holiday rituals, family sayings and mythology. There is an “us” in the rituals of weddings, funerals, baby showers, and all the celebrations of life–birthdays, Bar Mitzvahs, graduations. As we live these traditions, we create records of these moments, photos that will appear in memory books.
I’ll never forget the joy of digging in the old cardboard shoebox of black and white photos my great-grandmother Blanche would drag out year after year. She’d pick up each one, sigh, and start to tell the story. As the years went by, I picked up enough stories to help me know where I came from, my heritage—strong, stubborn Midwestern people who settled the early Iowa farmlands; beautiful women who tried to break away from the “shoulds” and bondage of expectations for women—but with a cost.
Memoir and family story-telling is about creating a legacy and heritage, exploring where you came from so you can know better where you are going—and perhaps how you might want to change that legacy. Every time I read stories about someone’s family history, I’m impressed how memoirists are creating a historical record of how life is being lived now. In a short time, your today becomes your yesterday. What are you preserving for your family?
Libraries collect diaries and journals from “ordinary people” as a record of how we have been living through time. Families have tucked away unpublished memoirs and/or diaries of family members, fascinated by details of family history that they otherwise would not know. It’s especially gratifying when we learn about how someone felt or what they thought—we’re frustrated with lists about the weather or just facts, but that’s often what was preserved from generations who felt that personal details should be kept private. In this era of Facebook and public sharing, I wonder if diaries and journals will offer more juicy details in the archives we leave behind.
Truth and Secrets
In my work as a writing coach, many people ask this question: “What about secrets—what do we include in a memoir that’s for the family? I want to keep the darker stories, the moments of drama private, but they’re the most interesting things that happened.”
Some people write two versions of their memoir—the “lighter” version and a more truthful one. Many people who start to write a memoir find themselves spinning out stories they’ve never told, but the memories start flying out of the end of the fingers and end up on the page. This can feel kind of scary, as if the “writing self” is out of control. As a therapist and writing coach, I believe that these stories need to come out of you, they need to be told.
Allow yourself to be your own witness to your true and honest life. You are just writing when you start, you’re not publishing yet. You can write in private to explore your inner life and parts of yourself you may not be aware of—and what a journey of self-discovery that can be! Save your drafts, and later you can decide what to publish.
Light and Dark Stories
To choose the stories that you want to write, create a list of lighter stories—the humorous ones, the ones with inspiring lessons you want to leave your descendants, and write these first. If you’ve started remembering other stories you feel less comfortable with, keep in mind that they are calling out to be written. Once you have put them on the page, you might gain a new perspective on these memories. As I wrote my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, I interleafed the lighter, happier chapters with the darker more painful ones. After writing the deeper truths of your life, you might feel relieved, even if you’re feeling emotional about these stories. You can put them away for a while as you weigh the pros and cons of sharing them. Let them marinate in the drawer until you decide.
Life is composed of variations on themes of pain and pleasure, light and dark moments for everyone. Perhaps the stories you don’t want anyone to know about have a valuable lesson to be learned—they are probably some of the most significant moments of your life. As you assemble your vignettes or chapters, write at the bottom of each one what you learned. What was the takeaway for you having lived these moments? These are your wisdom legacies.
The Family Memoir
I’m coaching many memoirists who are compiling the stories from their grandparents and great-grandparents to preserve the family history. They say “I’m writing my grandparents’ memoir,” but in truth they are writing their own memoir and including family stories from the point of view of another person. A family memoir is a great project. It’s considered non-traditional in the publishing world because you have to imagine and make up some of the details about the inner experience of that “character.” You can research the historical era and background of your family members to fill in details, but when you are in the third person, you’re essentially writing fiction because you are not that person. Jeannette Walls got around this problem by writing Half-Broke Horses as a “true life novel.” She didn’t have enough details of what happened in her grandmother’s life for a memoir, and she wanted to be free to imagine the feeling and point of view of her grandmother.
But you can imagine what happened, and let the reader know that you’re compiling information and the story that’s unfolding is imagined. John Lanchester’s book A Family Romance is a good example of this. On a quest for truth after the death of his mother, he draws from his extensive research to enter the heads of all four grandparents and his parents. The details he discovered in his research created a vibrant story of the times, circumstances, customs, and point of view of all concerned as he unraveled the mystery of his mother’s life—and the truths that had been hidden for decades. I recommend the book as an example of a way to present the family legacy.
The important thing is to get started with your family legacy story, and your own.
- Write down the significant moments of your life and your family history.
- Make a timeline so you can see how the years evolved.
- Research the how the history of the world intersected with your family history on the Internet.
- Join Ancestry.com or other genealogical sites to find out more about your family.
Thanks for such warm, wise and encouraging words. And also, for including the personal touch of your perspective on your family as early settlers in the mid west of the USA… Isn’t it interesting that you don’t use the word I migrant, which has lots of negative connotations and associations, but that is the words police do my family who ‘settled ‘ in the U K .