Writing Family History Is Attainable Immortality



I've noticed something about those of us who are over the hill. The more we face the reality of mortality, the more we seek ways to live forever. Oh, we know there's no Fountain of Youth yet. Still, there's a kind of immortality that is attainable. Mozart and Shakespeare are seen as immortal because they left something of themselves that is tangible, even hundreds of years after their physical deaths.

Ordinary people like you and I can do that, too. We can write down the stories of our lives and leave an enduring legacy for our loved ones.

My sister is doing that. She shared her first modest efforts with me when I visited her recently. As I began to read, I recognized instantly her first "memory." It was a story our parents told many times as we were growing up. She was about three years old at the time. The story has always been one of her favorites, because, in it, she is cute and clever. I never liked the story, because my sister is the center of attention in it instead of me. My sister gave the story her own spin that has evolved over the years. It isn't a memory at all. But to her, it's a precious gem in the setting of her life.

She had written down other such stories, family lore that had been enhanced with each telling. We marveled at our dissimilar perceptions of these stories. Even sisters who shared so many common experiences have unique stories to tell.

Since then, I've been collecting tips to pass along to my sister, at her request. The most important one is just what we discovered: Write your own story with all the authenticity you can. Be true to yourself, but don't be intimidated by other family members whose memories or interpretations don't jibe with yours.

Events in real life are random, confusing, episodic and isolated. To capture the essence of who you were and have become requires being selective, looking for events and relationships to reveal the purpose and meaning of your life. Drama, adventure and, especially, conflict will emerge.

You don't want to sanitize the story. Don't soft-pedal the pain or the joy. Merely relating events in chronological order will be boring. Events alone aren't interesting; dreams and disappointments, successes and failures are. A reader or listener likes to hear what lessons were learned.

Starting in the middle of your life or even in the present, and working back or skipping around can be effective and help organize the material. Some memoirs are written as a series of separate little essays. Grandma Moses wrote in her autobiography, "I have written my life in small sketches, a little today, a little yesterday, all the things from childhood on through the years, good ones and unpleasant ones, that is how they come out and that is how we have to take them."

You don't have to be "a writer" to tell a good story. Imagine sitting at the kitchen table with your best friend, sharing with him or her something that has had meaning to your life. These moments of candor and intimacy may cause laughter or bring tears of regret or sadness. Write the way you talk. Reading other peoples' memoirs is helpful.

There are numerous books available to help you get started. A classic is "How to Write the Story of Your Life," by Frank P. Thomas. Another is "How to Write Your Own Life Story: The Classic Guide for the Nonprofessional Writer," by Lois Daniel. "The Photo Scribe: How to Write the Stories Behind Your Photographs," by Denis Le Doux is another approach.

Check out local sources, too, such as the Gila County Genealogical Society, 474-2139; Payson Public Library, 510 Main Street, 474-5242; and Eastern Arizona College's Payson campus, 474-6316, for writing classes.

Contact Vivian Taylor at 474-1386 or online at viv@cybertrails.com.

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