When I started teaching memoir back in 1996, twenty-two people circled a big table at the local junior college in the area where I live. Stories so ready to tell poured out of them. Some of those stories kept my students awake at night, turning on a bedside lamp and writing into the early hours. A few used my suggestion of keeping a Post-It notepad by their bed so they could jot down an idea that stirred them but didn’t have to write about it until daylight. There was an urgency to people’s writing, an urgency filled with pleasure, not an urgency driven by fear or pressure to perform. Each week I gave them a new topic to write about, and some used it. Others wrote on whatever interested them most to write about that week, or chose a topic that sprang to mind when they heard a classmate’s story. It was like an orchard of trees with fruits so ripe they were falling off branches too fast for buckets to catch them.
In those days, no one told me they were just writing for family. They were just writing. My feedback inspired and guided them, and everyone else’s life stories fascinated and fed them. They wrote copiously, many of them pages every week — typed and by hand — and the writing was as compelling to read as it was to write. Since then, scores of times I’ve heard new memoir writers say, “It’s just for family.” They say this sometimes apologetically. I’ve heard it when I’ve given advice to add specifics or to enliven the story with description or to add reflections on their experience. Oh no, they say. It’s just for family.
Everyone who cares about you cares about your life and will want to read what you write about it if you make it compelling.
By “it’s just for family” do they mean they don’t have to make their story sound as interesting as the experience was? And since when is family “just”? The statement seems to imply that family is not really all that important. But they’re writing for family, it’s their intended audience; they must be important! I’m reminded of a situation years ago when I had a roommate whose mother would call and leave a message on the answering machine every week or so. Predictably, she would always say, “It’s just Mom.” Not worth a call back because it’s “just” Mom?
This is what I tell people, and it’s true: Everyone who cares about you cares about your life and will want to read what you write about it if you make it compelling. Family members here today and yet to come want to know about your experience and your insights. Even people who don’t know you may be interested, just as you are when you pick up a published memoir or are moved by someone else’s memoir in a class. Big generalizations, vague overviews, great gaps in a story or leaps in time muddle a story and turn readers away. Even family.
If you think you’re writing “just for family,” think again about that family. They are people like you, people who care, people who read to learn, people who want to understand. By writing memoir, you share yourself with others, you tell your story in a way that not only describes but communicates and invites a reader into your world. This is how it was. I’ll tell you about it so you can know what it was like being there, what it was like for me. A dash is used to show the dates of a lifetime (1904 – 2000). Here is the closing stanza of “The Dash,” a poem by Linda Ellis that’s often read at graduations and funerals.
…when your eulogy’s being read
with your life’s actions to rehash…
would you be proud of the things they say
about how you spent your dash?
The stories of your life are about how you spent that dash. They are everything a family tree is not. They are the story that lives on.
Live your dash well. Write about it well. Just for you. Just for us. And even for family.