Deciding whether to tell your personal memories versus family stories is the memoirist’s version of “Who ya gonna call?” (Cue Ghostbusters music in the background.)
Perhaps the question is wrong. You don’t have to decide between telling your own story versus telling family—or even ancestor—stories. This isn’t a case of choosing “All of the above” because you’re not sure of the correct answer.
Your family’s story is part of your story
Telling stories of family members, particularly those who feature strongly during your growing up years, is undeniably part of telling your own story. Those relatives are part of who you are. They’re also part of how you became that person. They represent role models, not to mention the basis for a lot of your anxieties. And, whether or not you’re into “genealogy,” when you record the episodes of your past, you’re documenting parts of your family history. Telling their story is telling your own story.
Stories of Loved Ones Ground Us
If you read this blog regularly, you know my grandma passed down a collection of memories and stories. (See The First Treasure Chest of Memories.) Not only did she include some basic description of who begot whom, but she also included stories about her relatives. Those stories help us digest not only who grandma was, but the family that raised her was. Which means we understand our own heritage. Now grandma’s story is part of my own story.
You are part of your family’s story
For some reason, this one is often a sticking point. Most people are quick to see how their family story is part of their past and their development. What some family story compilers are slower to embrace is that the episodes of their own past have a place in the family story. Family historians are notoriously over-reticent about themselves. Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard of documenting life journeys and historic events of their ancestors.
However, that’s a mistake, and not only because it leaves a hole in the family story. As wonderful as ancestor stories are—and they are wonderful—they are no substitute for telling your own story. Putting yourself on the page allows you to connect with both present and future loved ones. My grandmother included genealogical information and that helps me form a connection with those ancestors. However, that connection pales in comparison to the one I enjoy with my grandmother.
Telling your own story and family stories
We all write best when we write about something over which we’re passionate. Follow that passion. When approaching a subject, go with the story that resonates the most with you. For instance, one particular grandparent story will stand out to you. Perhaps its’ the story of a beloved (or wicked) grandparent. On the other hand, perhaps telling your own story means writing about how you never had a relationship with a grandparent or how you feel now that you’re the grandparent.
As Jeff Goins points out, telling your own story is good practice; they make you a better storyteller.