Looking For A Cozy Indoor Activity? Capture Your Family History In A Memoir
By Kate Silver | October 15, 2020
This past year has given us ample time to think about what truly matters. And now that it's getting a little nippy outside, and you've binge-watched everything in your Netflix queue, you might consider starting this cozy indoor activity: exploring your personal and family history, and organizing those memories into a memoir. Trust me, you don't need to be famous to write your life story.
As a professional ghostwriter, author and journalist, I've written countless memoirs over the years, telling the tales of chefs, wine makers, bankers, CEOs. Some have been books examining entire lives, others have been shorter narratives delving into particular events or subjects. The key to all of the above is finding a thread and pulling at it until you've got enough material to work with. When you're finished, you'll have a piece of personalized history to show for your efforts.
Here are some ideas to help get you started, so your family has a true memento.
1. Dig deep and reflect
What are some things you want your family to know about you? Was there a particular time in your life that you want to record, such as travel adventures, launching a business or raising a family? Are there ancestral treasures you'd like to pass down, such as beloved recipes or tales about your own grandparents coming to America? Is there a family mystery to solve or share? Find an idea that excites you. That's a great place to start.
2. Ask around
Writing a memoir doesn't have to be a solitary event. If you're not sure where to begin, enlist the family to help. Request that each child or grandchild submit a list of five to ten questions that they'd like to know about your life, or their heritage. As you answer these questions, you may find that they serve as writing prompts that send you in a new direction. Or you could address each question, one by one, and simply preserve those answers in a binder to pass along to the family. It may not be a memoir in the traditional sense, but it's something future generations can cherish.
3. Think outside of your own life
If you could ask your parents or grandparents anything in the world, what would it be? What is it you wish you knew about them? Do you wish you knew more about their childhood? How they met their sweetheart? What it was like to be alive during a certain time? What their weeknight dinners looked like? What was their most prized possession? What got them out of bed in the morning? What kept them up at night? Now, think about your own life and the kinds of experiences you think your children or grandchildren might wonder about. Those are all excellent places to start.
4. Try writing a letter to yourself
I've found that this approach is a great way of breaking through the cobwebs and jumpstarting the memoir process. It's also inspiration for a stroll down memory lane. Some ideas: "A letter to my 10 year-old self." "A letter to my 30 year-old self." "A letter to my pregnant self." Load it up with advice, reflection and reassurance, and you may find your current self feels better for having written it.
5. Dive in and get started
Now that you've got all kinds of ideas running through your head, it's time to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard or voice to recorder). When I've led classes and spoken on panels about writing, I've always shared this message: Tell the story you'd tell at a cocktail party. Don't overthink it. Make it entertaining, casual and accessible, and see where it takes you. Once you get going, choose a time each day, or a few times a week, when you can be alone with your thoughts and and make writing a habit. You may even find it has some therapeutic benefits.
6. Have fun with it
You don't need to write a work aiming for the literary canon. You don't need to aspire to a certain word count or story arc. Not every story demands a hero and villain, a climax and a denouement. This is your project, and you should enjoy it. Get creative. Use rhymes, or play with Haiku. Add photos to certain pages, or doodle as you go. Keep a journal of these current crazy times. Anything you write will be a reflection of your personality and your experience, and that's something future generations can relate to.
If you think, when writing your own story, that recording those first words are the hardest part of the process, you're not alone. In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway wrote of how he reassured himself: "I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.'"
Heed those words, and the rest will follow.
Kate Silver is a Gen X writer living in Chicago. Her work regularly appears in Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and her own website, www.thekatesilver.com.