Start Writing a Family Memoir

Food Stamps

You’ve heard it before: everyone has a story.  I believe it’s true.  Unfortunately, not everyone is willing to share their past with family members or is willing to write their memories down for future generations.  What a lost opportunity.  A family memoir is a chance to capture a moment in history that is both important to an individual, his or her family members, and often others outside the family circle. It only requires a storyteller and a willing listener.

What makes a family memoir different from other types of writing? First, a few general definitions may be helpful:

  • Biography: the details of another individual’s life, often spanning from birth to death
  • Autobiography: the details of individual’s life told by that person in his or her own words
  • Memoir: an individual’s recollections of a particular time period in his or her life
  • Family History: a history of a particular family, often spanning generations
  • Family Memoir: the recounting of a particular time period of a family member’s life, past or present

The family memoirist tends to focus on specific moments in time, revealing personal events of a family member while illuminating universal themes. When I began writing my father’s story, I gathered information about his life over a fairly broad span of time, but it eventually became clear that the real story took place from his first experiences of the Winter War until the end of World War II. It was his experiences during the wars that made this story truly significant.

You have a family story and you want to tell it. Where do you start?  Research.  It’s important to have a solid understanding of the time period about which you will eventually write.  Read everything you can find connected to time, place or individuals in like circumstances.  In my case, I read survivor memoirs for at least six months before I interviewed my father.  In particular, I searched for books about Stutthof, my father’s concentration camp, but found only a few resources and fewer memoirs. Throughout the writing and rewriting of my family memoir I also researched the Winter War, concentration camps, World War II, merchant marine ships, and any number of other topics.  It helped to watch films from the time period and documentaries on the subjects. Sometimes my research brought me to unexpected places.  As I reached out to staff at museums in Finland, Poland and Washington, I was amazed at the number of people willing to help me locate resources.  Not only did my research provide me with a solid foundation, it is also armed me with knowledge that would help me to emotionally handle the horrific stories I would eventually hear.

If you are fortunate to have a family member who is living and willing to share stories with you, don’t wait!  You may not know exactly what your story will become, but sitting with that individual and becoming an active listener will eventually open that door.  Ask questions, record discussions, take notes.  Everything matters in the beginning. I spent every Sunday afternoon for six months with my father.  A lot of coffee later, I had reams of notes to sort through and made many follow-up visits and phone calls.  While much of what we discussed is not in the end product, I have notes and even chapters of material about my father that may find their way into a story, an article, or perhaps even another book. If nothing else, I have recorded his memories to share with my own children.

Gather photographs and other mementos.  I am highly influenced by visual materials, so photographs were a great source for information.  Luckily, my father kept a shoebox filled with black and white photos from his youth and years as a young sailor.  Not only were the pictures useful to me, they also prompted his memories.  Every photograph, passport, sailor’s document, postcard or food stamp unleashed a story when he held the item in his hands. A cousin in Finland also had many family photographs which she scanned and sent my way. I was thrilled to open photographs of my family for the first time.

If possible, travel.  Go to the places that your family member describes.  I knew from the beginning that I would have to travel to Poland and Germany.  Unfortunately, I did not travel with my father, but I took many pictures that I shared with him on my return.  Apart from his first-person recollections, there was nothing more powerful than standing in Poland’s Stutthof concentration camp and walking on Pelzerhaken Beach in Germany.

If there is a story to tell, who else but you will tell it? Research the time period, interview family members, gather family photographs, and travel.  Start somewhere.  See where your family history leads you.