Memoir: Giving Roots to Those Who Follow


There’s an African proverb that tells us, “When an old man dies, a library burns.” It’s a powerful observation—and all too true. The experiences of our parents, grandparents, and ancestors are lost to us when they pass on if we haven’t taken the time to discover and document their stories. Unfortunately, many of us don’t realize what treasures those family histories might hold until we reach “a certain age” ourselves.

In Western society, we sometimes view the greatest legacy as the wealth we inherit from our parents or grandparents. With this inheritance, we are likely to feel more secure in our lives, less fearful of being unable to care for ourselves and our children in the future.

But is financial security the best inheritance? I believe not. I believe that family cohesiveness is one of the best legacies we can leave to our families: a sense of who they are and how they belong in the family unit. This security of place and welcome is a key foundation to happiness.

Stories provide roots for a family, and as the success of the 1970s show Roots and later genealogy shows illustrate, we all want to know where we come from.

Family stories can bring a family together. When we share stories, we share a common bond. Without that bond, families begin to drift apart, to feel disconnected from one another. And that is a loss to all members of the family. Perhaps family members feel that they have nothing in common. They don’t live in the same state, they share no experiences, they are not part of each other’s lives. In our mobile society today, this is all to typical.

But get those dispersed family members together, for a wedding or funeral all too typically, and shared stories begin to draw the family together again. Their immediate lives might be so diverse and so polar opposite that they might feel they have nothing in common, but they can discover commonality in stories of those who have gone before, members whom they both share in the family line.

Family stories and the histories they preserve have a remarkable power to bind generations together through their shared connections to the past. I think most of us intuitively recognize that there’s a lot of significance in family lore, but research suggests it has the potential to profoundly influence our children and grandchildren for the better.

Why does family history matter so much? In part, it’s because being a part of something bigger than ourselves helps give us roots. Some experience it as a spiritual connection with their ancestors. It boils down to understanding that we come from a shared past, and that our families will go on after we’re gone. There’s a certain comfort in knowing you’re part of a timeline—or a family tree—that continues to grow and change.

Novelist George Meredith once wrote “Memoirs are the back stairs of history.” Those back stairs preserve a piece of the past for future generations.

You set an excellent  example by documenting your own story. Once you have begin, I suggest that you encourage all family members to be aware of their own unique stories. If you have elderly parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or other relatives, now is the perfect time to ask them to share their stories with you—or better yet, ask them to share them with a member of the youngest generation and let that person report to the whole family.

Remind your children and other younger family members that their own stories are vital to the family collection. People of any age can be the bearers of tradition. Give your family roots off of which they can grow and strengthen themselves and their own families.


Memoir: A Selected Aspect of Life


People often delay writing their memoirs because they don’t believe that they have all of the information required to write their life history. They don’t know the dates and locations of their parents’ births, perhaps, and certainly don’t have that information for their grandparents. How can they begin their own story if they don’t have documentation for what came before?

This might be true for an autobiography, though I think it’s not required, but it’s certainly not true for a memoir. As Judith Barrington wrote in her book Writing the Memoir:

[A] memoir is not an autobiography but rather a selected aspect of life. How you select that aspect is crucial to the success of your piece. You have to know–not necessarily right away, but at some point–what it is that you really want to write about, which in turn will tell you what to leave out.

Life doesn’t have a shapely plot in the way that fiction often does. Instead, it goes day by day with an ever-shifting focus as various themes unfold over time. As you shape your memoir, you will need to select events from this random package in order to capture a narrative.

That is where vignette writing comes into play. When I work with my memoir writing clients, I suggest that they begin by writing vignettes of their lives, those stories that they frequently tell others, or those stories that they hold deep within themselves that must be told. These are the seeds of the future memoir.

Once we have eight or ten vignettes, it is often possible to begin to recognize an inherent story structure, to see what is important in the relating of their lives. Themes often become apparent, such as themes of loss or of movement or of a search for meaning. Often, once we identify the unifying theme, more stories come tumbling out of the writers’ minds, prompted to flesh out the theme.

These vignettes are then tied together with a main theme…much like individual frames of a film.

Of course, a memoir can have multiple themes, but even these will eventually show a structure around a larger, pervading theme. The main theme is like the trunk of a tree, off of which will grow the branches and leaves that give the tree its form.

Some writers know before they begin what their themes will be. Others must discover them through process. But all memoirs will be mere aspects of a larger life. And that is perfectly okay.