When I started teaching memoir in 1996, twenty-two people came to my class eager to write their life stories. Some of those stories kept them awake at night, and they got up and wrote into the wee hours. A few followed my suggestion and kept a notepad by their bed so they could jot down ideas for stories when they came in. There was an urgency to my students’ writing, an urgency powered by joy. It was like an orchard with fruits so ripe they were falling off branches too fast for buckets to catch them.
In those days, none of my students said they were writing just for family; they were just writing. They were inspired, and they wrote copiously. Since then, I’ve heard too many new memoir writers say, “It’s just for family.” It can sound like an apology. I’ve heard it when I’ve suggested they add descriptive details to enliven a narrative, that they add scenes to give a close-up on how it was, or add reflection on their experience to share something of themselves and what the experience meant to them. Oh no, they say. I don’t need to do that. It’s just for family.
Since when is family “just”? The statement seems to imply that family is not very important. But if you’re writing for family, family 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.” Was she not worth a call back because she was “just” Mom?
Everyone who cares about you will want to read about your life if you write about it well. Even people who don’t know you may be interested, just as you are when you read a published memoir.
If you think you’re writing “just for family,” consider that family again. A family is made up of people like you, people who like to learn, people who want to understand the experience and perspective of those they love.
When you write memoir, you tell your story in a way that does more than recount what’s happened in your life. You find the story in your experience and invite readers into that world so they can understand more about your life and about their own because of insights you’ve shared. In the world of memoir, this is called relatability, or “the takeaway.”
Long ago, I read a poem called “The Dash,” by Linda Ellis. A dash is used to show the dates of a lifetime, for example, 1944 – 2011. Here is the closing stanza of “The Dash.”
…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?
Find the story in how you spent that dash. Write about it well. Just for you. Just for us. And even for family.