“How do I know my descendants are even going to care about this stuff I’m writing?” This question arises every now and then, and it’s a good one. You can’t know, and you can’t make them care, but there are a couple of things you can do to make your lifestory writing rewarding and increase the odds that they will care.
The first thing to keep in mind is that unless someone else has specifically requested that you write your lifestory, you are primarily writing it for yourself. You can derive immense benefit and satisfaction from writing it even if no other living soul ever reads it, and there is no guarantee they will.
The second thing you can do is to master writing techniques that will fascinate your readers and compel them to keep reading. “Oh, dear,” you think, “I just don’t have a way with words, and besides, I really don’t have time to spend a week polishing each sentence I write, even if I knew how, and besides, that wouldn’t sound like me anyway. I need to be true to myself….” And so it goes.
Gentle lifestory writer, take heart! Don’t beat up on yourself! This particular post was inspired by a note I made myself several weeks ago. This cryptic note has a primary secret for writing compelling lifestories. It says
“Stories that lack insight and interpretation are generally dull and empty sounding.”
The other sentence on the note card continues, “specifically regarding forebears and other family members,” but the main thought applies to writing even about your own experience.
For example, consider this short passage: “Every year we went to Grandma Bell’s house for Thanksgiving. The house was packed with cousins, and we all ate too much. On Christmas….”
A typical reader may not even take time to answer the obvious question, “So what?”
Now take that beginning and describe the cousins, and the quirks of those cousins. Describe the tantalizing aroma of roasting turkey, punctuated by the fragrance of pumpkin pie, and maybe Uncle Jake’s pipe tobacco adding a pungent overtone. Tell your family how the younger children had to sit at card tables in the other room, the one with the gray walls, flower-printed sofa, maroon drapes pulled tightly shut, and coffee table moved against the end wall and how much you looked forward to being an adult and sitting at the “real” table where people were civilized and talked about important things.
Tell how Cousin Sam always pinched your arm so hard the bruise lasted for three weeks after, and Cousin Beth cried and threatened to tell, but Cousin Tony always cracked a joke that calmed everyone down and kept the peace and how Cousin Tony was always your hero, and you hoped to marry a man just like him when you grew up. Let your readers know that you looked forward to holding the new babies, and didn’t even mind being sent to the kitchen to help clean up, because the girls had a super time gossiping when you didn’t have the boys tormenting you.
Be sure to include your later assessment that Thanksgiving has never been the same since you married and began dividing Thanksgiving between your family and your spouse’s. Tell them how you earnestly hope that as time goes by, your children will know their cousins, because even though some of your cousins tormented you, they were among the most important people in your young life. Family matters!
With the additional details, you’ve painted a more vivid picture, so your reader will feel included in the feast. You’ve also answered that key question, “So what?” You’ve told them why the memory matters to you, and what difference it has made in your life.
Even if you leave out the details like maroon drapes, and even if you aren’t good at including details like the tantalizing aroma of roasting turkey, that last paragraph about the meaning of the annual pig-out session will add meaning and interest to the story, and help your reader understand why you bothered writing the story.
Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal