“Be the ancestor you wish you had!”

I heard that phrase from an attendee at a writing talk I gave in Belleville a few years ago, and it stuck with me because it so perfectly captured one of the reasons why I encourage people to write their memoirs.

We write to provide the oscillating family stories, those stories that convey not just our triumphs but our struggles and how we overcame them. There is solid evidence that passing on these stories improves children’s and adolescents’ emotional health and happiness. It helps them find that “grit” so talked about these days, that resilience that helps them weather setbacks and resist temptations.

But writing family history can be daunting. For decades genealogists have assured us that we must complete comprehensive research before we can, with confidence, set down the facts of the people who came before us. While some people find this research absorbing, others resist. As a result, stories go untold, and fade from memory until, like a badly fixed photograph, nothing but ghostly outlines remain.

1978 return from France ghosts

My friend and genealogist Dee Grimsrud says “research AND write!” Research enough to begin the story. In the telling, you will get down what you know, and discover what deserves more research. Step by step, left foot following right foot, you will capture the stories AND enough factual material to frame them appropriately.

Do you have to wait until you have confirmed data before sharing a story? No, says Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, author of You Can Write Your Family History. “Those colorful family legends–the ones you haven’t been able to prove or disprove in the course of your research–also have a place in your family history narrative. Use and acknowledge them for exactly what they are: family legends.” [Emphasis hers.]

I have another favorite saying that comes to mind regarding writing family history: “The kid stays in the picture!” (That line is attributed to studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who was defending the use of a child actor.)

For me, this means including YOURSELF in your family stories. Be a character in that drama. Write about favorite or colorful relatives as YOU remember them. If your genealogical research takes you on dramatic journeys, down dry dead-ends that at the last possible moment turn into treasure-houses, or into correspondence with long-lost relatives who bring new chapters to your life, write that too. Genealogical purists poo-poo inserting yourself into a family narrative, but I’m all for it. You are a link in this chain. Give yourself your due.

Suppose, as you gather with friends and family this holiday season, the conversation turns to the family tree. As those stories spill out, grab your iThing and say, “Hey, let me capture that!” Pull up your Voice Memos app and hit the Big Red Dot.

Save and share those family stories. Some future relative will be glad you did!


My workshop “Start Writing Your Family History” begins January 6 at Pinney Branch Library on Cottage Grove Road, 4-6pm for 5 Wednesdays. Click here to register.


About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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1 Response to “Be the ancestor you wish you had!”

  1. lovely 🙂 I agree, write as you remember, it’s YOUR story you are telling, your memoir, not another’s. We all perceive and remember things differently, which is what makes our stories unique !


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