Writing your family history sounds like a daunting task. However, if you start with small, episodic memories and narratives, it doesn’t have to be hard.
Your Family Story is Your Story
Don’t worry about documenting a comprehensive history of all your ancestors and relatives. Instead, tell your own story with your family and its history as a backdrop. Start your family story in small installments—your memories (what else?).
Here are five super-easy prompts, each of which makes a great place to start writing about your family story.
What do you remember or know about your ancestors?
Even if your answer is “Uh…nothing,” this is a great place to start.
That’s a story too! Your (lack of) family history is your story—your unique slant of on your family, its past, and its traditions. Write about how it happened that you have no memory or knowledge of your ancestors. Was there an estrangement? Are you the first generation looking for your roots? Those are incredibly valuable stories, just begging to be told!
If you know all about your ancestors, it’s even easier. Choose a relative or ancestor and start with their part of the family story. If you’re just starting out, you might want to limit yourself to 400 to 600 words to keep yourself from overwhelmed.
Stories about the ‘old country’ or the ‘home place’
Especially if your parents or grandparents hailed from a different geographical area than where you grew up, you probably grew up hearing about their homes. These stories can become so familiar that they’re like the faded wallpaper in the family room. We’ve seen it a hundred times, but can only describe it in the vaguest terms.
Explore the stories of your forbearers’ youth. I guarantee you there are stories in them thar hills (or flats, or walls).
Did your family’s ethnic or cultural heritage have an effect on your upbringing?
When we think of ethnic heritages, our minds immediately jump to food and religious holidays. However, ethnic heritage often colors all aspects of family life, starting with how kids are raised and what is expected of them.
This is a great way to weave your personal story with your family story. How did your family’s heritage effect your youth? Describe it, even if you’re just lamenting the number of potatoes your Irish grandmother made you eat.
Professions and work ethics of your grandparents and ancestors
The iconic American family story is the immigrant rags-to-riches narrative. Does it fit your family? Why or why not?
My mother’s family story is almost literally a riches-to-rags story. The first family member to immigrate to the US in the late 1600’s was a Baron. As subsequent generations became American patriots, the British crown relieved them of their titles and land holding. By the time my mom came along, her family was so poor that my mother, whose feet were larger than her older sister’s, never owned a new pair of shoes until she went away to college.
Such family lore matters, because it tells us of the stock from which we come. It imbues us with family pride. Even the nasty, dark ugly stories of family history are important. Reconciling ourselves to our past helps our resolve to do better, aim higher, and make our lives matter.
War stories or stories of life in the ‘olden days’?
Do you hear the same stories at every get together? These oral histories that have reached the benchmarks of “lore” are some of the easiest to write. The who, what, and where have been described—often ad nauseum.
It won’t take too much prying to get the when and why nailed down. There’s another built in advantage—you know your family never gets sick of the story. The only disadvantage—everyone in the family probably has their own spin on it and will want you to use their version.
Whether they are actual battlefield heroics or keeping the fox from the hen-house, these stories make a great springboard for writing down the episodes of your family story.
© Laura Hedgecock 2013