Memoir and Family History: Part 1—Leaving a Legacy

This is the first installment in a series about writing memoirs and family histories. A couple of months ago, I asked readers to take a short survey on what they would like to see on this blog. Most of the responses were split about 50-50; half of the respondents liked something, and the other half didn’t. Memoir/family history writing was the only subject with a consensus: 100% of the respondents said they would like to read a series on the subject. I am passionate about preserving personal and family memories—I encourage clients thinking about writing their personal or family story to do so, and I have written an e-book: Preserving Memories: How to Write a Family History.

I’ll start the series by talking about what memoirs and family histories are and why you might want to write one. The next two posts will focus on each genre individually, as there are distinct differences between them. Then the rest of the series will cover the process you can use to write and publish (no matter how limited) your personal or family story.

You may be wondering why you should consider writing a memoir or family history. The answer, in a word: legacy. If the one-word answer doesn’t motivate you, read  10 reasons anyone should write a memoir or 15 reasons to write a family history.

I’m not suggesting that you should necessarily write a memoir or family history with the expectation of having it published by a large publisher who will pay you a lot of money and distribute the book widely in bookstores. Unless your family is rich and famous or you have been involved in a major public scandal, the odds of your book appealing to a large publisher—or to a large mass market—are small. But just because you won’t be appearing on Oprah or seeing your book listed as #1 on the USA Today bestseller list doesn’t mean your memoir or family history isn’t important.

Ask yourself if you would like to read first-hand accounts of your great grandparents’ lives or the memoir of one of your ancestors. Then realize that your descendants will feel the same way. Genealogy has become one of the most popular hobbies in the US because people want to know about their roots. They want to know the answer to the question: Where did I come from? Your memoir or family history can help your descendants answer that question generations from now.

Writing your personal or family story can be beneficial for you and the current generation as well. When major events occur in our lives, we all think we couldn’t possibly forget any detail … but we do. By writing about them, you can experience the joy or learn the lesson all over again.

On the other hand, some things we take so much for granted that we don’t explain them to our children or our family members. How did cherished family traditions start? What event in your past changed the course of your life? Do your children or grandchildren know how you met your spouse or why you chose the career you did? Do they understand how the good and bad things that have happened to you have shaped the person you are today?

My own family has experienced firsthand both losing the legacy and passing it on.

My grandfather, who died when I was 12, was a cowboy in his early years and a marvelous storyteller in later years. Grandpa was always telling stories; no one ever bothered to write them down because they were so familiar. His children had heard the stories so many times they were convinced they would never forget them. But forget them they did, and now those fabulous cowboy tales are lost forever.

Memories of my mother haven’t been lost. She was depressed and lethargic after my father died. She couldn’t seem to get interested in anything until we convinced her to write her memories. To describe her “little stories,” as she called them, as a memoir would seem presumptuous to her. They weren’t written as a book—just as individual stories when she thought about something, in no order and with no theme. However, each Christmas, she gave copies of the latest stories to family members, who collected them in loose-leaf binders. Even the teenagers would put aside their games and cool stuff to read Grandma’s stories under the Christmas tree.

My mother-in-law wasn’t willing to write, but she dictated her life story into a tape recorder. I transcribed the recording and added photos, and she gave notebooks with her memories to family members.

Those simple loose-leaf binders have become precious to our family now that my mother and my mother-in-law are no longer with us. Family members can read the words in these binders, and it’s almost like hearing their voices once again—the words and style so familiar and so dear.

You can leave a similar legacy for your loved ones by writing your own memoir or family history.

What is a memoir or a family history? There are many definitions and many forms of each genre. Because they are so personal and individual, definitions can be elusive.

In general, a memoir is a form of autobiography, written by the person it’s about. Autobiography is often the preferred word in describing a chronological story of the author’s entire life, while memoir can focus on a specific time period or reflect on a particular topic. In trying to answer the question Memoir: What Is It, the nonprofit literary journal Memoir (and) says

We cannot confidently erect a fence and say this belongs inside, this is definitely outside.

Memoir can encompass prose or poetry, gravitas or humor, text or graphics. It is usually written in first person, and it always about the person who is writing it.

A family history is the story of a family rather than an individual. It often is written about one line of descent of a family and can cover one or many generations. Family history can be written as nonfiction or as fiction. People reading fictional family histories should be able to tell what is real history and what is fiction.

In Part 2, we’ll discuss memoirs in more detail.

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