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How and Why You Should Write the Story of Your Family and When to Veer into Fiction

Happily, my new course on “Crafting the Story of Your Family: For Writers and Non-Writers Alike” at The Writing Salon has begun and I am reminded of what the New York City Library has listed as one of their “20 Reasons You Should Write Your Family History”: the historical and literary record needs more material from previously underrepresented people – women, people of color, the poor and working-class, the disabled. In short, if you think the historical record is too filled with privileged white men, get writing.

The Social Advantages of Writing Your Family Story
In this culture filled with megastars, it’s hard to remember that, in fact, you and your ancestors count. “The entire story of mankind has come to us from individual voices from the past,” some say. Family histories and first-person narratives are important historical documents that fuel research, social histories and fiction. They provide the sparkle that enlivens and provides depth to data on birth dates, names of children and day of death.

And while genealogy research is essential, most family histories document the male lineage and leave the female lines sketchy, tangential, assumed, or as a footnote. It’s clearly time to change that.

As importantly, writing your family story gives you a chance to depict your ancestors as you see fit – in a way that breaks through stereotypes and assumptions.

Five Choices (at least) of Genre for Your Family Story
After your research is done, you have a choice of at least five different ways to tell the story: straight-up narrative, creative nonfiction, memoir, fictive biography or historical fiction.

1. Straight-up narrative: this could be a straightforward, factual telling of the story of your family including all members and all events. It serves as the written record, the underlying facts, but because of its scope and dedication to the absolute truth, it can make for very dull reading. This narrative, though, makes a nice accompaniment to any of the other four genres and can be put in the appendix as the historical record, leaving you room for more creativity elsewhere.

2. Creative nonfiction: this uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. “Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction. Forms within this genre include biography, autobiography, memoir, diary, travel writing, food writing, literary journalism, chronicle, personal essays and other hybridized essays.”

3. Memoir: a memoir is a collection of memories that an individual writes about moments or events, both public or private, that took place in the subject’s life. It is assumed to be factual but presents a more narrowed focus. A biography or autobiography tells the story “of a life” – from the outside in – while a memoir often tells “a story from a life” such as touchstone events and turning points in the author’s life – from the inside out. Different perspective and different scope.

4. Fictive biography: this piece still has a close resemblance to the truth but names, locations, events, and even the cast of characters can be changed to advance the story. The person at the core, however, is an actual person. A Slender Tether dramatizes the early years of Christine de Pizan, an outstanding intellectual of the 1300s in France and the first defender of the moral and intellectual abilities of women. When the book came out, the Christine de Pizan Society was gracious enough to let me give a talk on exactly what in the story was based on fact and where I had taken poetic license (which was mostly on the emotional development of Christine.)

5. Historical fiction: here’s where you have the option of deviating entirely from the truth. This can become a story that is “based upon” or “inspired by” your family story. It could be an alternate history that answers the question “what if?”

In other posts, I explore:

#2: "The Advantages of Fictionalizing Your Family Story"

#3: "Good Storytelling Techniques for Family Stories"


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