Seventeen years after my Grandpa Bob passed away, my dad planned a family reunion at a park in Northern Utah. Prior to the reunion, he invited his four siblings and their children to email him their favorite memories of Grandpa Bob. He compiled the memories in a 16-page document and printed copies for everyone.
One of my favorite entries came from my cousin, Natalie, who signed off with an apology: “I’m not a good writer, so hopefully this all made sense. I’m sad my memory isn’t better.” I was surprised. The stories Natalie shared were interesting and specific, full of fun details and sayings Grandpa was known for. Her words painted a vivid picture of him that made me miss him acutely. I didn’t once notice an ungrammatical sentence in that collection of memories. That’s not what matters. What matters is authenticity, voice, and perspective. What matters is that our stories get told, in all of their imperfect glory.
Would you like to make 2018 a year to tell your family stories? Let these simple tips inspire you to put pen to paper. No one is more qualified to tell your family’s story than you are.
1. Own Your Story
You are absolutely the best person in the world to write your story and your family history. You are the only human being ever born to this earth who has your unique perspective and life experiences. You know all the details. You were there. J.K. Rowling couldn’t tell your stories better than you can.
2. Tell Favorite Stories Aloud
One of the reasons my cousin’s words came so alive for me is because her family members are all great verbal storytellers. They get together and reminisce and repeat some of the same stories over and over. This practice adds structure to fragmented memories, making it easier to write them down later.
3. Make a Time Line of Major Life Events
In a notebook or a computer document, write down each year you’ve been alive. Leave a page or two between each year. Now start adding in all of the big turning points that divide your life into chapters: being born, going to school, moving, changing schools, reaching religious milestones, learning to drive, graduating, getting a job, changing jobs, getting married, having children. Unhappy events like divorces and deaths will make the list too. Jot down names, places, dates. If all you ever complete in your personal history is this list of major life events, that’s a lot better than nothing. If you’re inspired to keep going, you’ll have a great framework for writing a thorough personal history.
4. Be Specific
Add as many relevant details as you can when sharing a memory. If you make a general statement, think about the evidence you’d include if you had to prove you’re telling the truth. For example, my cousin Natalie wrote, “I remember Grandpa always took very nice care of things.” If she had stopped there, it still would have been a true statement about Grandpa, but it became much more memorable when she added this detail: “If he used the weed eater, he'd wipe it off and put it back in the box.” Now that tells a story about just how careful and meticulous Grandpa was. Not only did he keep the original box for years and years, he also took the time to wipe off dirty lawn equipment before putting it away. I loved that detail; I can picture him doing exactly that.
5. Just Start
It doesn’t matter how far behind you feel you are in capturing your personal history. Start somewhere, and start today. Even if you don’t have time to delve deeply into the past right now, make a regular habit of capturing and collecting current thoughts and memories. The important thing is to capture them while they’re still fresh; you can always organize and rearrange your memories later.
Trigger Memories Authentically
6. Make a List of Stories to Tell
Not sure where to start with your personal or family history? Start by making a list of stories you want to write down eventually. Then elaborate on each of them, one by one. Think about the anecdotes you find yourself telling over and over—like that disaster you narrowly avoided, that crazy coincidence, that one time you ran into a famous person. If anyone ever says, “Yeah, you told me that one before,” that’s a clue the story is important to you. Add it to your list.
7. Forget About Chronology
I know I told you to make a time line, but there’s no rule that says you have to write your life story in chronological order. You can use the time line for reference only, then write your stories in any order you want. After all, you don’t remember your life in chronological order. Memories tend to pop up at random, triggered by the strangest things. As you write your stories down, you can add whatever structure to your memories you want. Leave them in random order. Group them by person or place. I have an encyclopedia-style document on my computer where I gather memories under alphabetized topics: “Adventures with Jori,” “Body Quirks,” “Cheese,” etc. (Yes, I really do have a story about cheese.)
8. Use Memory Triggers
Photos, keepsakes, clothing, and other objects can be wonderful memory triggers. Look through photo albums at relatives’ homes and see what stories come to mind. Then add them to your list of stories to tell. Plan a visit to a neighborhood or city where you once lived. Walk around, notebook in hand, and see what memories surface. You can also use questions or writing prompts, like the #52stories project, to trigger memories and stories.
9. Let Your Thoughts Percolate
It’s hard to summon stories on demand; our memories just don’t work that way. If you’re using writing prompts or trying to answer a list of questions, read through them at the beginning of the week. Then set them aside, and go about your life. You’ll be surprised what you can remember after you let a question marinate in your mind for a few days.
10. Gather Memories from Other People
Consult siblings, cousins, children, and other relatives to help round out your memories of a person or event. Natalie talked to two of her sisters before typing up the final list of memories she sent to my dad. I’m so grateful to all of my cousins and aunts for contributing their perspectives, despite any writing insecurity they might have felt. Now we have a well-rounded picture of this man we all loved, from those who knew him as a young father and those who knew him as an aging grandfather, from those who saw him daily and those who visited a few times a year.
Keep It Simple
11. Use Your Handwriting
I already know what some of you are going to say. “But I have ugly handwriting. I hate my handwriting. Typing is so much easier.” Let me just ask you this: Have you ever encountered a recipe written in your grandmother’s hand and thought anything other than, “Wow, I miss her.” Your handwriting is unique to you. Your family will want to have some of your words written in your own hand. They won’t judge you for sloppy or imperfect handwriting. They’ll treasure it as a piece of you.
12. Write the Way You Speak
Forget about formality and the rules of writing. Just do your best to allow your authentic voice to shine through. The more your written words reflect the way you speak, the better. It can take years for even professional writers to find their own “voice” and feel truly at home with their style, so don’t worry if you feel awkward with writing at first. If you still feel stuck, pretend you’re telling the story out loud to a friend. Actually say each sentence out loud, and then write down what you said. It’s that simple.
13. Don’t Stress about Grammar and Spelling
There’s a saying I want you to repeat to yourself over and over: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What does that mean? Perfection is not the goal. If that’s what you’re aiming for, you won’t get anything done at all. An imperfect life story that’s written down is infinitely more valuable than a perfect story that’s never told. So don’t worry if you struggled diagramming sentences in school and can’t distinguish a subject from a predicate. If you know how to speak in coherent sentences, you’ll be able to write a coherent history, too.
14. Write in List Form
Lists are a great way to break up your prose, making it both easier to write and more fun to read. The options are endless. Here’s a brief list of things you could make lists about in your journal:
- Cities you’ve lived in
- Schools you attended
- Songs that remind you of high school
- Favorite books or movies
- Quotes or sayings your grandfather always said
- Traits you inherited from your grandma
- Recipes that remind you of home
- Personal injuries and hospitalizations
- Childhood mischief that you got away with
- Pets your family owned
Make It Last
15. Make It a Regular Practice
The more you exercise your writing muscles, the easier and more naturally your words will flow. Set aside a block of time once a week for journal writing, as the #52stories project encourages you to do. If that sounds overwhelming, write every other week or once a month instead. You could also pick one month a year (maybe your birthday month) where you write briefly every day—either about your current life or about your past or your family history. Do what you have to do to remove barriers and make journaling fit your lifestyle, even if that means carrying a small journal in your purse or writing your entire journal in a Notes file on your smartphone.
16. Keep Multiple Journals
Long-form, paragraph-style writing is just one way to capture memories about your life. I have a journal like that, but I have other kinds of journals, too. I have a file on my smartphone where I capture spiritual insights and a-ha moments. I have miniature notebooks where I capture funny things my kids say. Several times in my life, I’ve used a blank wall calendar as a journal, writing one tiny memory a day inside those little squares. I did this for my daughter from the day she was born until her first birthday. I’m doing it now for my infant son.
17. Curate Your Own Writing
Everything you write about yourself counts, so collect it all together. If you give a presentation at work and you share a personal anecdote, pull that out of the presentation and save it in your personal history. If you share a personal experience in a Sunday School lesson, save it. If you speak at a family funeral, definitely save that. Comb through social media for stories you’ve already shared and save them in a more archival format.
18. Make Some of Your Stories Permanent
Some of the writing you do will be just for you, and that’s okay. But some of your writing will really matter to someone else, like your account of the birth of your child, or your recollections of a beloved grandparent. Save your most important memories in the FamilySearch app, in the Stories section, where all of the data is archived and backed up to the cloud. If it’s a story about your grandfather, save it to his profile. If it’s about your life, save it to your own profile. All stories remain private while the person is still living, but they’ll eventually be visible to the entire extended family.
It’s Up to You
Don’t let your self-doubts get in the way of preserving the important stories of your life. Don’t let your insecurities keep you from helping your children—and their children—see your parents and grandparents the way that you saw them. There’s no better time to start preserving your most important family stories. There’s no better person to do it than you.