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    « What's Worth a Memoir? | Main | Is My Life Interesting Enough For a Memoir ? »

    Writing a Family History Should be a Unique Experience

    Every family’s life is unique. The process of creating a book about it should be unique too. When you set out to chronicle the history of your progenitors you search their collective experience to discover the knowledge, wisdom and values that experience has produced. The great American mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “Life is without meaning. You bring meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe to it.” Creating a family history book is an instance where you do that ascribing of meaning to the lives of your ancestors. That’s a uniquely personal process.

    But there are an increasing number of people offering shortcuts to creating family histories. They offer some form of template. Some do it by interviewing. They arrive at each interview with the same set of questions and record the answers. It’s the same set of questions no matter how different the clients may be. Walgreens and Kodak provide a set of click through options to create a photo book online. Genealogy giants with MyCanvas and Roots Magic with Personal Historian provide software or online templates. It’s like taking a test in school. All you have to do is fill in the blanks or answer a multiple choice question. Unfortunately with all of these template-based approaches every family’s life seems a lot like every other family’s life when the book is finished. They’re homogenized. What’s missing is the uniqueness of the family’s experience and the author’s discovery of its meaning. The relationship between the template based account of a family’s life and a true family history is like that between paint-by-numbers and art.

    Writing a family history should be an extraordinary creative experience. Creating your book is an opportunity for personal exploration and self-discovery. No template can provide that. The relationship between and editor and an author should be collaborative allowing you to draw on professional advice to make personal decisions about how you want to tell your family stories. You will have the opportunity to tell your family’s dtory your way. The book you produce will be as unique as the family whose history is its subject.

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    Reader Comments (2)

    Hi Biff, thanks for visiting my blog.

    I'm fascinated with your site and have lots to look through here! I'm also appalled to learn there are memoir templates. Really? Good grief! That's not writing memoir, it's just chronicling events and and creating dry history interesting only to those interested in genealogy. Or a writer could be confused and create a non-fiction narrative instead of a memoir.

    As a professional writer and potential novelist, I knew I had to imagine my audience. Because it was a memoir of my parents and childhood I imagined my daughters as my audience. This was a huge challenge because my daughters are adventurous women and I really wanted them to enjoy learning about their heritage but also the environment of the time 1960's-1990's, in Cleveland, Ohio and how that influenced not only their grandparents... We live in Oregon.

    Do these templates ask about the political, environmental, religious, and social history of the people experiencing those events? Who was president at the time and what did the person think about him? How many TV's did they own? Did they prefer dill or sweet pickles?

    I'll stop now and research more about all this information you have on this blog. :)

    Apr 6, 2010 at 8:09PM | Unregistered Commenterterri

    Thanks again, Terri! I enjoyed your blog as well. It's always fun to see what the writing process is like for other writers.
    I share your feelings about templates - they are usually chronologically organized, designed to take people through the stages of their lives, and do produce rather dry results. But I understand why people use them. Non-writers who have spent a lot of time gathering family history want a way to preserve it. They recognize that a book is the best way to do it. An interviewer or a company offers a one size fits all formula - a template- and it looks like they could do it. They don't realize that there is another, better way to create a book. Nor do they realize that they are missing a wonderful opportunity to have a true creative experience, so they use the template based approach and create a book.

    Apr 7, 2010 at 12:21AM | Unregistered Commenteradmin

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