Friday, October 2, 2009

Cousin to the Memoir - the Family History

Memoir Week has drawn to a close, but perhaps it’s not too late to explore one of its relatives—the family history. Broader in scope than a memoir, the history of a family provides roots for many who feel like they’re floundering in our transient society.

When I was a child, I enjoyed a lot of family togetherness. Several times a year we met at my paternal grandparents’ home for food, fun, and festivities. My mother and aunts gathered in the kitchen, first for meal preparation and then for dish washing and drying. (Grandma didn’t own an automatic dishwasher.) I remember so much cheerful conversation and laughter emanating from that room, accompanied by mouth-watering aromas that promised my favorite foods would soon be on the dining table.

Children take such experiences for granted and expect them to continue throughout their lives. But too often that doesn’t happen. As my generation grew up, it spread out. We went to the east coast, the west cost, south to Florida and north to Seattle. That togetherness of childhood gave way to separate paths that seldom, then never, converged.

In 1989, at my father’s suggestion, I began working on a family history. His aunt (my great-aunt) had joined the DAR many years before after tracing the family tree back to the 1600s and proving that some relative had lived in this country at the required time to qualify her for membership. Hence, I had a head start—a fairly complete genealogy. But they were just names and dates. For a family history I needed much more; I needed personalities.
Fortunately, I found elderly relatives on both my parents’ sides who remembered or had been told stories about my ancestors who lived in the 1800s and early 1900s. Old newspaper archives at a small city library in the county where my maternal grandparents had lived provided information that hadn’t been recalled by the people I interviewed. Photographs dating as far back as the Civil War era gave faces to names. Poetry written by my grandfather and watercolor paintings by my grandmother added personal touches to the historical accounts. And a fascinating conversation I’d had with my grandfather when I was young found its way into the story of his life. The book grew to more than 80 pages of pictures and narrative and can be added to as babies are born and life goes on.

What’s the point here? Such histories connect us to our roots. They create a sense of family that is often lacking today. So when considering a memoir, why not take it a step further and do a family history? Maybe even do both. The priceless stories I uncovered would have been forever lost to future generations had I not set out to do this book, for two of the three people I interviewed (including my father) are no longer living.

Today, family ties are crumbling. Many young people have no sense of who they are or where they come from. Making a family project out of discovering one’s history can create a cord of togetherness that strengthens those ties. Why not try it?
Linda Lane, author of Katherine’s Song and Treacherous Tango, has teamed with two other editors to offer streamline power-edits to writers who want their books to shine on a budget.

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  1. What a fabulous thing you did for you and your family. I think you're so right about the family ties disappearing. I remember gathering with parents, grandparents, cousins, and distant kin. I don't think my kids will have those memories. They'll have other memories, but I wish they would have ones of big, boisterous family gatherings.

    Straight From Hel

  2. I'm working on my family history now. I'm fortunate that two of my great-grandparents recorded lots of the really old stories dating back to the 1600's. Then my grandfather spent his last twenty years writing a "back when" section to his weekly letters detailing his life from 1900-1999. These are treasures. I'm trying to put them together in chronological order along with all the boxes of photographs, 8mm films etc. transcribed to a digital form so that everyone in our current family can have a copy. It's my gift to the family.

    I find the hardest part is convincing family members to allow me to borrow the pieces of the family story in their possession long enough for me to transcribe their information into the master book.

    It's a fun project, despite the amount of work. It's also a project that never ends. At some point I'll have to make the hard call that I'm finished with my part, and hand it off to the next generation.

  3. My sister did our family genealogy for both sides and gave us her findings all typed up. When I was reading it, there were so many unanswered questions, I decided to write two books. The first about my mom's family--a fictionalized account--was published by Dorchester. The one about my family's side was published by a smaller publisher. The were lots of fund to write, but took a lot of research--and imagination.


  4. I love the idea of family histories. It is important to pass down lore from one generation to the next. I have done that in small ways for some of my grandchildren. Made them memory books for HS graduation in which I included as much family history as I know.

  5. The genealogy community has long taken advantage of online technology - first for research and now for publishing. While not replacing the formal family history, blogs have provided a platform to not only tell family stories but also connect with research cousins and other geneaholics. Today we have a very supportive online community thanks to those blogs, blog carnivals and social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

    While a formal family history can be a huge (and intimidating) endeavor, using blogs to present individual stories as research allows and to document the challenges of our research efforts provides an outlet for our passion and a support network of encouragement and inspiration.

    Thanks to this online coummunity-building, family history is expanding way beyond the collection of names and vital records.

  6. Lots of folks are intimidated by actually writing up the data, but there are writers-for-hire who can massage the data into an interesting story. Linda, can you name some organizations where a person could find a ghostwriter? Story Circle Network has an editing service that specializes in memoir, but I know there are others.


  7. Dani, I'll see what I can find.


  8. Linda, my wife and I are new and very inexperienced writers. We're working on a dramatic memoir of her grandmother's life and trying to couple it with how what happened during her life has affected the lives of her daughter and granddaughter. We really need help in finding the right construction and direction to the story.

    P.S. I tried to contact you through LinkedIn but it won't let it go through without upgrading my account. If you can help please contact me there.


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