Memoirists — Get out the Photo Albums and Explore Family Memories


The holidays are the season of gratitude—a time when we reach out to family and friends to celebrate all the ways we appreciate them, a time when we count our blessings. During the holidays we make a priority to gather and share joy and stories, though for some people, it can be a time of stress and loneliness. If that is the case, then use your journal to write out how you feel and what you remember.

If you are planning to visit with your family, it can be an opportunity to dig out the photo albums and tell stories around the fireplace: “Remember when, see what you looked like then?” as you pass around the album—or share the photos on your computer.

I advise memoir writers that the holidays is a good time to do some “research” about family stories. As you write your memoir you discover your memories through writing prompts and digging into your memories as best you can, but it’s amazing what immersing yourself in family can bring up. Being “at home” brings you into the family circle in two ways—as a family member and as a memoir writer. Not only are you with the people you are writing about—which can feel like a strange situation at times!—you’re also in the settings, the houses, towns and landscapes of your past that trigger evocative memories.

You might wonder at these gatherings if your family members will share more of their stories—or will they try to keep them closer to the vest if they know you are writing a memoir?

Doing research about family stories requires a decision tree

  1. If you have told your family that you’re writing a memoir, your research may need to be subtle—especially if some people are feeling sensitive or worried about being exposed, or if there are secrets in the family that some people want to protect. These techniques include talking innocently over the family photo album and finding innocuous ways to ask questions. See if some of the questions mentioned in point number 4 below are helpful to you.
  2. If your family does not know you are writing a memoir, you need to gather data, dates, and stories carefully—again depending on how open your family is about talking about the past. You can disguise your research as you seek family stories about the holidays or about the far past, or about people they used to know. Sometimes these stories lead to them being more willing to share more personal and private stories.
  3. If your family is open about talking about the past, you could prepare questions about the family history ahead of time for them to think about, or ask them beforehand if they would consider being audiotaped when are all talking together about family stories. If a family gets along and is supportive of the memoir, this can be very helpful.  Think of the questions you have never asked before, or points that you feel are tender, and probe gently from your now-adult perspective. You might be surprised at how willing people are to revisit the past, especially if you are accepting and gentle about creating a positive “remembering” atmosphere.
  4. In a situation with a closed family dynamic, you can gently ask leading questions:
  • When you were young, what is your favorite memory?
  • What did people used to say about Uncle Joe (substitute the person you want to ask about here) back then?
  • What were the best and worse stories you remember about me?
  • Tell me about the best holiday you remember.  Why was it so special?
  • What was the most challenging thing you had to do when you were younger?
  • Questions about weather and how personal history intersected with public events can be fruitful.
  • What new items were the most shocking to them?
  • Who were their favorite family members?
  • What were their favorite books and movies and why.
  • Think of other favorite topics like sports, politics, or possibly religion—that they are willing to talk about. Sometimes this can lead to inroads to what you want to know more about.

            Gentle leading questions can open doors to more questions, if your relatives and friends are cooperative and curious. Your own curiosity, especially if you don’t have a grudge, can be contagious and help to open up the conversation.

   5.  Remember, family stories are like slices of a pie—each person has a different angle of view toward the story being told—people remember different aspects of the same event. One might remember colors and clothes, another what happened in vivid detail—from their POV of course—and another who said what to whom. Just listen to the different ways people remember—and marvel at it! Your story can include other people’s versions or not—it’s up to you. The memoir you are writing is ultimately about your memories!

I want to thank you all for joining me in the joy of memoir writing. I wish all of you a happy holiday season, and look forward to seeing you in the New Year. 

Be Brave—Write Your Story!

Linda Joy Myers

President of National Association of Memoir Writers

Photo credit: Free digital photos