Writing Memoir or Family History? Be Afraid. Be Careful.

That's me, Lynette Benton

That’s me, Lynette Benton

When I converted my home office into a writer’s study, one of the first things I did was post on the bulletin board above my desk a card from the National Association of Memoir Writers. It reads:

Be Brave: Write Your Story

That’s what writing memoir and family history takes. Bravery. Cojones. Downright Daring. As Catherine Gildiner writes in “How to Write a Childhood Memoir,” “. . . [W]riting a memoir takes nerves of steel. . .” *

Few of us have steely nerves when it comes to writing honestly about our lives or our families. The stakes are too high. I don’t just mean the possiblity that what you write will fracture family relationships. What you discover as you write might also shatter some of your own fiercely held illusions about your family—and yourself. What you write also forces you to relive less than sanguine experiences, and dredge up old embarrassments, personal regrets, frustrations, and grief.

Of course, you might be one of the lucky few with a history in which every day was sunny and no one ever got sick, cranky, fired, or drunk. You might have no bygones to let be bygones. If you’re like most people, though, your own past and that of your family are peppered with no shortage of secrets, myths (or, let’s face it, lies), or unpleasantness. Or, you might make a fully considered decision to report only the good times, and that’s your right, of course. Some of my memoir and life-writing students state categorically that they do not wish to rake up the sad past.

TREES WATER

I would never tell them, as many proponents of the memoir writing process believe, that just writing your story is healing. I know that it actually can leave you in tatters.

Exposing Secrets
A conviction that our story needs to be told can supply the sheer courage that’s required to exhume old memories and write them into art. For me it was a matter of first, knowing I was in possession of two interesting, suspenseful, instructive stories—one centering on money in my family, the other on my work in organizations. Second, I felt compelled to put an end to what felt like collusion. As long as I kept my stories inside me, it seemed as if I was abetting secrecy and suppression of the truth. It was suffocating me.

Our families might have been daredevils, drinkers, cultists, swindlers, and involved us as their unwilling offspring in their activities and deceptions. If their story is unflattering, if they’d rather it not be told, at least not from our point of view, should we suppress it even if it chokes us?

With each of my memoir and family history drafts, I find myself revealing more and more of the truth. That’s partly because with each re-writing, as in a palimpsest of versions placed atop one another, I develop deeper understanding. New insights bubble up. New connections appear. Ah-ha moments seize me during the day and tease me in my sleep, making me wonder how I could have missed them before.

And with each draft, it gets harder and harder for me to justify hiding the truth.

Stick With What You Can Tolerate
I don’t allow myself or encourage my students who are writing about their lives or their families to reveal more truth than they can stand. Instead, I say, tell only the truth, but not every truth. The fallout could be unbearable, in terms not only of how those mentioned in your manuscript might react, but also in terms of your own self-recriminations. What if you find out later that what you wrote is just plain wrong? What if you have regrets after your book is released to the public, or even just to family members or friends?

Charges of Libel?
Your friends and relatives objecting to what you write is one thing. Suing you is another. We’re all supposed to be protected under freedom of speech laws, but to be on the safe side, educate yourself about libel (“a false statement made in writing”) and privacy laws, which vary across states. You might want to give careful thought to whether or not to include photos of people in your memoir or family history, unless you’ve gotten written permission from them.

To stand the test of truth, I’ve kept documentation: letters, emails, legal documents. I have no illusions that those who witnessed certain events would testify to the veracity of my account. Why would they want to get involved in my battle, if it came to a court case?

Help Is On the Way
Upcoming posts on this topic will address the ethics of memoir and family history writing (issues such as fairness to both the living and the dead) and I’ll share info on resources and ways to overcome your apprehensions.

Your Thoughts?
What do you think about the possible perils of writing about your life and your family? Please leave a comment, which can help all of us writers of these types of manuscripts.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also find the following helpful:

Will My Family Get Angry About My Memoir? Be sure to read the (quite cautionary) comments.

Memoir, Writing the Truth, and Family: Interview with Author Joy Castro

How to Avoid Committing a Libel in Writing a Family Memoir See additional links at the end of the post.

* In Women Writing On Family

If you need help with writing your own memoir or family history, check me out on the Testimonials tab above and use the Contact tab to tell me about your project.

Short of that, subscribe to this blog so you won’t miss the next posts on this and related topics.

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How to Use Artifacts to Fuel Your Memoir or Family History

SOW HEADSHOT
Paper Prompts
When we prepare to write a memoir or record incidents from our family’s history, we might easily think of common paper items that many of us tend to hold onto. These can form the basis of memory aids, and would include:
— photos of people and places
— letters received from relatives and friends
— diaries we can reference for specific events and dates
— diplomas and achievement certificates
— holiday and/or restaurant menus
— tickets to the theatre, a ride on a sightseeing boat, or for that special anniversary cruise
— invitations to parties, proms, weddings
— bills for kitchen appliances, household repairs, cars
— property deeds, birth and death certificates, and medical records

Other artifacts
Not only paper reminders are helpful. What about furniture—your great-aunt’s moth eaten chair that you vaguely remember storing in your attic, meaning to get it reupholstered? It might remind you of the ritual Sunday afternoon visits to this aunt’s house with your parents when you were a child.

What about your grandfather’s old yard tools languishing in your garage? And your grandmother’s table linens you’ve intended to use each Thanksgiving, but always forget in favor of the Bed, Bath, and Beyond tablecloths and napkins you bought in recent years? Your brother’s baby shoes (bronzed or not). The deliberately tacky key chain your friends gave you for your twenty-first birthday. And my favorites, old clothes and jewelry owned and worn by ancestors long deceased.

All of these can prompt memories of the past and the people whose lives have touched and influenced your own. Through their belongings we not only remember, but recapture and relive our own and our family’s past.

For more ideas and prompts as you write your memoir or family history, see Turning Memories into Memoirs, a book many of my adult writing students find helpful.

Turning Memories Into Memoirs

Click the cover image to learn more about this book

Want more memoir writing and family history tips? Click on those words in the Categories column on the right of this page.

NEXT POST: I’m going to take a crack at addressing how people work up the courage to write the truth in their memoirs, family histories, and journals, and where they hide this writing until it’s time to release it on the public (or at least on friends and family).

This is a biggie, so I hope you’ll all weigh in with your strategies.

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The Zen of Life Story Writing

That's me, Lynette Benton

That’s me, Lynette Benton

When I give talks on writing life stories, invariably members of the audience say their kids or grandkids are pestering them about their early lives, and they want to let their extended families, friends, and future generations know what made them who they are. Or that they’ve got stories within themselves that are crying to be set free.

But, even if you’re fully ready to start writing stories from your life, the task can seem overwhelming; after all, you’ve been a part of and witnessed countless events and amassed a lot of experience.

So, here are 3 words to help you jumpstart your life story writing project—and your memory:

Images
• Artifacts
• Lists

In this post, we’ll confine ourselves to the first one.

Images
Shimmering Images author Lisa Dale Norton writes that the title of her book refers to memory pictures that we have embedded in our heads (and often in our hearts).

Click the cover image to learn more about this book

I don’t know about you, but I have images that trigger recollections and fragmented reminders of incidents in the past: The look on my father’s face when I was a toddler and screamed when he lifted me onto a bus on our way back from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. (My parents must have made a big deal of the excursion, because even then, I knew that was where we’d been.)

I see myself subsequently on a huge metal table, alone in an empty room with a big, boxy, machine moving above me.

Years later, haunted by that scene, I asked my mother about it. She explained that I was lying beneath X-ray equipment, which revealed that I’d fractured my left collarbone. I can visualize the very day I must have injured it; I’d fallen off the bed while playing with my older sister.
PICNIC

What are your shimmering images? You’re not looking for facts here; you’re searching for impressions connected to your past. Your grandmother at the stove, her presence reassuring and anchoring the entire household. Yourself dancing to forbidden music in a basement rec room after school. The picnic where you met your true love. Driving home after being offered your dream job. Driving home after being fired.

These images can lure you into a meditative state that helps you call up and even relive your personal history. Write them down, along with their associated physical and emotional elements. Was there a transistor radio or boom box playing music (what kind of music?) or broadcasting a baseball game at the picnic? Can you remember your father’s exasperated expression as he made his way down the basement steps, caught you partying with your friends, and reminded you that he’d sent you to the supermarket to pick up lettuce for dinner? Was the sun hot and your car without air conditioning the day you lost your job?

Right now, just rely on your own mind to provoke memories for your stories. Since some of your shimmering images might be caught on photos or videos, in my next life-writing post, I’ll discuss how you can use artifacts to further stimulate your memory.

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Choose a Life or Family Story Writing Option

That's me, Lynette Benton

That’s me, Lynette Benton

If you’re thinking of writing about your life, or your family’s life, here’s some information to help you decide which of the possible forms would work best for you.

Autobiography
An autobiography covers your entire life. Tip: Be careful about starting out with your actual birth, unless there was something special about it, like yours being the first recorded birth in such and such a year or town.

You want your autobiography to engage readers, even if they’re family members, so I advise against lists of facts. “I was born on” feels like the beginning of a list of facts.

Try instead to write something about your birth, like “No one knew if my father would be able to get leave from the military in time for my mother’s due date.”

That immediately sets up suspense. We’ll keep reading because we want to know if he did get home in time. Then you can go on with something like: “Military leaves were scarce, since Pearl Harbor had been bombed a short time before and the US was at war.” Now you’ve added context. We’re interested.

Memoirs
A memoir describes a portion of a life, which could be a chronological period, like your teen years, or a subject, like all the houses you’ve lived in. I recently completed a project with a client who wrote about the years she and her husband spent their winters in Florida.

Life Stories
What I call a life story (or story from your life) is an anecdote about something in your life. I like it best when someone delves into a family myth, or discovers a secret. (I’ve never yet taught a class in which a boomer or senior didn’t find out something about their family that had been deliberately suppressed. For more ideas, see Supercharge Your Life Story with These Ideas.)

My husband's wonderful family helped me find info on my father's family on a recent trip to NC,

My husband’s wonderful family helped me find info on my father’s family on a recent trip to NC

Genealogy and Family History
The definition of genealogy that I like best is: “The study or investigation of ancestry and family histories.”

In addition to, or in place of, developing a family tree that confines itself to births, marriages, and deaths, many people write family history, which takes a broader look at ancestry than a family tree can accommodate.

Some genealogies include family stories and artifacts and documentation such as letters to help build a portrait of a family and its members. A number of sites like Family Search and USGenWebProject offer a rich trove of genealogical search opportunities.

Profiles
Often a student of mine will realize in his or her mature years that a certain person exercised a strong positive influence on him or her. That acknowledgement inspires the student to write a profile of the parent, teach, mentor, neighbor, or friend, which turns out to be a meaningful tribute to the memory of that significant person. One student wrote so beautiful a tribute to her father that all of us who heard it wished we had known the man.

Going Forward
In my next post, I’ll provide tips for getting started on your personal and family history writing projects. What else would you like to know about writing stories from your own or your family’s life?

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Top 3 Reasons Baby Boomers and Seniors Put Off Writing About Their Lives

Are you among those who chide themselves for not doing anything about those anecdotes your friends keep telling you that you should write down? Or maybe it’s those personal memories you feel you ought to share with the world? Or, you might feel weighed down by a nagging desire to preserve the history of your family for future generations?

Well, if you keep procrastinating about writing your stories, you’re not alone. When I give talks about life story writing, I usually face a roomful of folks wearing guilty expressions.

I open with a question for those in attendance.

“What are the differences among biography, autobiography, memoir, genealogy, and life stories?” I ask.

Reason #1
The audience looks perplexed; some individuals shift uncomfortably in their chairs. Someone might murmur a tentative response, but actually, no one’s quite sure what the different terms mean.

“It’s easier to write about your life if you know your options,” I tell them.

(Here are some of the different types of life story writing.)

Reason #2
After I explain the differences, the most frequent remark I hear from the audience is: “How can I start getting my story down on paper? I’m not sure I even remember a lot of what I want to write about.”

Reason #3
And invariably, the next remark is a perfectly valid one: “I feel overwhelmed by the prospect of writing all this stuff down.”

Well, in upcoming posts, I’m going to give you some tricks to get you started on that biography, autobiography, memoir, family history, genealogy, short personal tribute, or story from your life. I’ll also tell you about fabulously helpful resources.

I hope you’ll check back so you can get the “I-should-be-writing-this-down” monkey off your back. If any questions have you stumped, just put them in comment below and I’ll be sure to address them. And you might want to subscribe to future posts so you’ll be notified by email when they are published.

In the meantime, take a look at some of my Family History posts.

I'd love to know the personal histories associated with this building on a Washington, DC corner

I’d love to know the personal histories associated with this building on a Washington, DC corner

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5 Ways Libraries Can Support Local Writers

Adams Free Library

Adams Free Library

Last month I had the honor of participating on a panel at the New England Library Association conference in Portland, Maine. In response to the numerous requests libraries receive from boomers and seniors for memoir writing classes, I’d been invited to talk about my experiences teaching memoir to those populations in libraries and elsewhere.

For that I was happily prepared. But a question posed by the coordinator of my session (Self-Publishing) surprised and stimulated me. She asked:

What can libraries do for writers?

We typically think of libraries as institutions that feed our passions for reading, researching, and learning. The flip side of reading, researching, and learning, however, is writing. Someone writes the books we love. Someone writes the research findings and textbooks we need.

When it comes to creating memoirs and family histories, most individuals have to figure out—without professional guidance—how to tell their stories in writing. Their solitary struggles can delay completion of their work for years; all too often the effort is abandoned altogether.

Some libraries offer free literacy classes. Several in my area, offer journaling, memoir writing, and even writing classes for youngsters.

But could more local libraries become the places where those in our communities go for free writing instruction? In addition to teaching memoir and family history writing classes at the occasional library, I teach talented writers through community education programs, senior centers, and in retirement communities. But I know equally talented writers who cannot afford even the modest cost of those classes.

What Libraries Can Do for Writers
1) Perhaps libraries could avail themselves of grants earmarked for memoir writing classes. It would make sense for libraries, those repositories and consumers of writers’ work, to underwrite writing instruction a couple of times a year.

2) Many libraries host public readings of local writers’ published work. They could also sponsor writing contests and readings of excerpts from works in progress.

3) Libraries could stock the best-written and historically significant memoirs written by residents of the area. My students have written about life in a small Italian village in World War II officially hearing that the war was over when it wasn’t; a dramatic liberation from a German POW camp; life in a 20th century New England orphanage; even a mystery novel loosely based on the author’s experiences.

4) Hosting a series of seminars on self-publishing would be helpful to librarians and writers alike. Some libraries are partnering with Smashwords as a publishing platform. Other companies, such as FastPencil, evidently are getting into the act, as well.

5) Writers who want to self-publish their memoirs and family histories often need computer classes that cover effectively using Google for research; scanning and inserting photos into documents; downloading and saving documents; and formatting their manuscripts for publication.

Writers: Does your library offer memoir or other creative writing classes? Would you take advantage such free classes if your library made them available?

Librarians: I’d be happy to talk with you about short courses for your writer patrons. Please use the Contact tab at the top of this page to get in touch. Thank you.

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Book Review: Women Writing on Family

Click the cover image to learn more about this book

Interest in genealogy, family history, and memoir* is so intense these days it’s about time a book to guide writers working in these genres became available.

Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing, an anthology edited by Carol Smallwood and Suzann Holland, is that book. Smallwood says she was led to compile the collection when a novel she was working on raised questions concerning writing about her relatives.

“How much to tell, how much to leave out?” she wondered.

When no books came to her aid, she decided to collect essays by published women who were also experienced in writing about families. Why did she choose all women? She recalled Virginia Woolf’s observation: “We think back through our mothers if we are women.”

With eight sections (including one on “Writing Exercises and Strategies”) and 55 essays, Women Writing on Family can help women writing about family stay out of court on charges of libel from irate relatives; carve out writing time from frantic schedules; approach editors in the hopes of getting published; and promote their work—whether self- or traditionally-published—to the public.

In the opening essay, “Family Secrets: How to Reveal What Matters Without Getting Sued or Shunned,” Martha Engber takes writers on a tour of their—and others’—First Amendment rights, and offers tips on protecting yourself and those you write about.

Lela Davidson’s “Laundry, Life, and Writing: Making the Most of Short Sessions and Stolen Moments” (Don’t you love that title?) shows writers how they can make brief bursts of writing productive.

As a writing instructor, I tell my memoir-writing students not to bother writing paeans to their perfect childhoods. I won’t believe them and neither will anyone else. In her no-holds-barred essay, “How to Write a Childhood Memoir,” Catherine Gildiner lists the unpleasant memories writers should be willing to excavate from their own pasts, warning that writing a memoir “takes nerves of steel.”

If you’re ready to propel your story out into the world, take a look at “Identifying Potential Markets for Family Writing,” by Rebecca Tolley-Stokes, “Locating Markets for Writing About Family,” by Colleen Kappeler, and “A Writer’s Thoughts on Book Marketing,” by Ann McCauley. All three contain a host of valuable ideas for sharing your writing with larger audiences than your family.

*According to Booklist, the number of memoirs alone published over the last four years increased 400%.

If you’re up to exploring more hard-hitting memoir topics, see Supercharge Your Life Story with These Ideas.

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I’m Innocent, Officer: Thinking About Memoir. Again.

That's me

To prevent narrators from coming across as a whiny victims, modern memoirs seem to require that the narrators take responsibility for their complicity in the disasters they’re recording.

There are times in life when s**t happens, when you’re standing on a street corner with your back safely against a building, and a taxi jumps the curb and hits you. Are you guilty of placing yourself in harm’s way? Is a child born to grifters or alcoholics, for example, complicit?

My memoir (or family history) tells the story of what happened after my dying mother let me know she wanted me to find money she had concealed. Who had she concealed it from, and why? What had her kids done that made her want to hide her money from us? (We know why she hid it from our father.) And, had she ever intended her secrecy to cause the subsequent fallout—to herself and to her kids alike—that it did? Say, the IRS got wind of it and seized it. (It didn’t.) Who’d be responsible for its loss?

My take? Sometimes you’re largely an innocent bystander, writing about your family’s foibles.

If you’re writing a memoir or family history, you might like these posts:

Must-Have Memoir Writing Aids

Is It Memoir or Family History?

Memoir or Family History? A Deeper Look at the Differences

Follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton for more writing talk.

 

 

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Family History Writing: Guest Post by Linda Gartz, Part 1

In Part 1 of her guest post below, Linda Gartz, who writes the ambitious and impressive Family Archaeologist blog, shares the intriguing story of her research into her family’s history and the discoveries she’s made. Part 2 offers tips to others interested in documenting their family histories.

cropped-blog-banner-11-14-10-3
Discoveries
After my mom died, my brothers and I sorted through a lifetime of memories in the sprawling Victorian house we had lived in for almost thirty years. In the attic we discovered letters, diaries, mementoes, and documents that dated back to the late 1800s.

My grandmother had also saved passports and scores of letters from Europe—a mystery for thirteen years after their discovery because they were written in an old German script that few people can read any longer.

Two years ago I found a 90-year-old woman in Germany who could decipher them. I mailed her printed copies; she decoded the handwriting and emailed me the modern German, which I translated into English. (I majored in German.)

What a treasure these “mystery” missives turned out to be! I discovered love letters between my grandparents, diaries each had kept of their separate journeys to America, letters from family and friends in “the old country,” and more, each adding a piece to the puzzle of who they were and what they sacrificed to come to America. It was like entering a time machine.

I’ve posted their letters, diaries, and other documents as an ongoing story on my blog. They represent the immigrant dream.

Revelations

So many revelations were buried in these letters and diaries. Through the 240 or so World War II letters, I met Frank, my father’s younger brother, whom I had never known.  My grandmother, who was rather distant and cool to her grandchildren, wrote letters to Frank during the war that were so filled with love and deep anxiety for her son, they completely changed my opinion of her. I’m like the proverbial fly on the wall. Through diaries and letters, I learn details that help me understand those pesky family dynamics we all live with.

I have the thrilling experience of reading my parents’ diary entries made when they were very young, a time in their lives so different from when I knew them. I even read Mom’s delicious descriptions of falling in love with my dad!

I plan to publish my family history, but just getting through the thousands of pages of material makes it difficult to pare it down to its publishable core. I’m not sure if it will be a full family history or a series of memoirs, each focusing on a different theme. Finding focus is the hardest part and I’m still working on that. (See the various topics, revealed in the letters and diaries, at Welcome to Family Archaeologist.)

I admire the bold action my grandfather took in coming to America at such a young age. I’m touched by the sweetness of naive young love, and saddened by the train wrecks I see coming through diary entries. I’ve become more empathic to my family members as I grasp more fully their emotional states and unfulfilled expectations.

Come back to read part 2 of the guest post by the Family Archaeologist.

To find out more about family histories, follow Linda on Twitter @lindagartz

_________________

Join me, Lynette Benton, on Thursday, September 29, 6 – 7:30 p.m. for a lively presentation on Life Story Writing at Minuteman High School, in Lexington, Mass.

Advertisement Disclosure This website contains Amazon.com affiliate links. That means that Amazon.com purchases that originate on Tools and Tactics for Writers will help offset the expenses associated with this site. Your support is deeply appreciated!

Family History Writing: Guest Post by Linda Gartz, Part 2

In Part 2 of her guest post below, Linda Gartz, researcher and author of the ambitious and impressive Family Archaeologist blog, offers tips to others interested in documenting their family histories.

Linda Gartz, Family Archaeologist

Family History Writing Advice

The first thing to do if you want to begin a family history is interview the living, preferably on video tape.  There are dozens of books and hundreds of blogs out there to help. Lynn Palermo at The Armchair Genealogist writes a terrific primer on how to write your family history.

Helpful Books

Here’s a smattering of books to guide you through writing a memoir:

Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach

You Can Write Your Family History, Sharon DeBartolo Carmack

Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Life, Judith Barrington (Contains exercises to get those memories flowing.)

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, William Zinsser (Several brilliant memoirists discuss how they did it.)

And, of course, don’t forget Lynette’s guides on writing memoir and life stores, on this blog.

Read memoirs to get a feel for the structures and voices that memoirists use to share their stories and see the kinds of circles they draw around parts of their lives to find the core they wish to write about.

I like the following memoirs. For more, see: 100 Memoirs by Shirley Showalter.

Growing Up, Russell Baker

The Color of Water, James McBride

Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt

The Road from Coorain, Jill Kerr Conway

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller

For family history, which is more comprehensive than memoir, I recommend:

Oh Beautiful, John Godges

Family, Ian Frazier

Additional Tips

  • Do your homework. Don’t try to write the book without having put in the incubation and research that needs to be done for the story to emerge.
  • If you have primary documents, read them, and take notes on where you found the information.
  • Talk to family and family friends, who can reveal background and details of family members’ lives.
  • Keep notes and interviews on your computer in an organized filing system.
  • Record your memories with as much sensory and emotional detail as possible.

For one way to organize and share family stories and history, drop by Family Archaeologist, to see how I’ve interwoven family stories and commentary.

Also visit Geneabloggers and click through to “Individual Family History Blogs.” A blog is a great way to share your writing with family members and allow them to comment and add their own memories.

I’ve been truly enriched and enlightened by my search through my family’s past. The greatest gift of the work is the path paved to understanding and forgiveness.

Linda Gartz

Follow Linda on Twitter @lindagartz

_________________

Join me, Lynette Benton, on Thursday, September 29, 6 – 7:30 p.m. for a lively presentation on Life Story Writing, at Minuteman High School, Lexington, Mass.

Advertisement Disclosure This website contains Amazon.com affiliate links. That means that Amazon.com purchases that originate on Tools and Tactics for Writers will help offset the expenses associated with this site. Your support is deeply appreciated!