Writing Your Family History as Personal and Memoir Essays
(Today’s post comes courtesy of Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, MFA, CG
Does the thought of writing your family history send you straight back to bed to hide under the covers? Is the grout in your shower tile suddenly in need of cleaning every time you attempt to write your family history? Have you procrastinated so long that the relatives who were bugging you to write The Book have died, and now, instead of feeling relieved that the pressure’s off, you’re feeling guilty and remorseful?
You’re not alone. Most genealogists agree that it’s the research they enjoy and have a true affinity for. The writing part, well, that just conjures up demonic images of matronly English teachers with bloody red correction pens. Have you considered, though, that you don’t have to write a whole book? You can write one, two, three, or many more essays about your ancestors instead.
Before we get started, let’s get rid of the equally unsavory image of the word essay. I’m not talking about English Comp, thesis statement, five-paragraph-type essays here. I’m talking about the genres known as personal essay and memoir essay and how these can be viable alternatives to, or the perfect springboards for, a larger work.
The word essay derives from the French word assay, which means “to try” or “to attempt.” As Dinty Moore (yes, that’s his real name) says in Crafting the Personal Essay, “The essayist does not sit down at her desk already knowing all of the right answers, because if she did, there would be no reason to write” (emphasis his). This is perfect! How many of us know all the answers about our ancestors?
By adding the adjective personal to essay, it means you’ll be writing about something personal to you, such as your parents, your grandparents, your great Aunt Matilda, or your fifth great-grandfather. By adding the adjective memoir to essay, it means you’ll be writing about your memories of a relative. It’s not uncommon to find a little of both within an essay.
Essays can be a few paragraphs or many pages. As a former writing teacher once told me, “Have something to say, and stop when you’ve said it.” The length depends on what you have to say about your relative or ancestor. But what defines personal and memoir essays is the inclusion of you, the writer, in the essay.
Putting yourself into the narrative brings the essay to life for your readers. They might not be able to connect with an ancestor who lived 200 years ago, but they can connect with you, a writer, who’s searching for that ancestor and seeking answers about that person’s life. Or they can relate to your trek to the ancestral homesite to walk the ground your forebear walked. Or they can understand the writer who travels thousands of miles to the Old Country but keeps getting lost when he tries to find the cemetery.
The personal essay is as much about the author’s quest, the attempt, to find and/or understand past lives, as it is about the ancestor. The author doesn’t have to have all the answers and doesn’t have to reach conclusions. The reader is coming along for the journey, the experience, the sense of discovery the author makes along the way.
The memoir essay, on the other hand, captures a memory, or memories, from the author’s life as it relates to that family member. While a personal essay ponders a question or questions the author is trying to answer, the memoir essay just “is.” The memoir essay relates a memorable event told in story fashion.
The added beauty of personal/memoir essay writing is you aren’t obligated to document your sources. You are the source, your memories and your musings. In writing essays, which are always nonfiction, the reader brings to the table the trust that you are being honest and truthful—or as honest and truthful as your recollections and your interpretation of the events can be.
The best way to get a feel for essay writing, to see if it’s for you, is to read several of them. I’ve listed below some essays and a book of collected essays that are about each authors’ families. The list is not inclusive, but it offers a variety of approaches to writing personal and memoir essays about relatives and ancestors. As you read the essays, you will discover that many authors have developed themes or posed questions that most genealogists might not think to write about. But each one explores aspects of family history that resonates with readers.
Now when it comes time to write your family history, and the shower tile grout calls your name, consider writing something shorter and more manageable: a personal or memoir essay about your family.
“Aunt Harriet” by Hubert Butler (You can find this essay in the anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate, available at many libraries)
“TheClan of One-Breasted Women,” by Terry Tempest Williams (Google the title and author to find the essay online.)
“Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan (Google the title and author to find the essay online.)
“Questionnaire for My Grandfather” by Kim Adrian in Gettysburg Review (Winter 2009). (Back issues can be purchased at www.gettysburgreview.com/)
“Reading History to My Mother” by Robin Hemley (Published in the anthology Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present, edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone)
The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings by Rebecca McClanahan (This book is a collection of essays about various relatives in the author’s family.)
“Switched at Midlife” by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, published online at http://www.hippocampusmagazine.com/2012/01/switched-at-midlife-by-sharon-carmack/.
“The Urban Jungle” by Linda Gartz, published online at http://www.roseandthornjournal.com/Fall_2012_Prose_5.html.
About the Author
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s passion is writing, and she loves working with writers. She’s a Certified Genealogist with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing. Her twenty-plus years of editing experience includes acquisition, development, and content editing of more than forty books for F+W Media’s Betterway/Family Tree Books, as well as editor and/or mentor for numerous private clients. Sharon serves on the editorial board of Steinbeck Review, is an assistant editor for Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, and a contributing editor for Family Tree Magazine.
Sharon is also a published author of eighteen books and hundreds of articles, essays, columns, and reviews that have appeared in nearly every major genealogical journal and publication. Some of her books include You Can Write Your Family History; Carmack’s Guide to Copyright & Contracts: A Primer for Genealogists, Writers & Researchers; and Your Guide to Cemetery Research. Her work has also appeared in writing and literary publications: Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Hippocampus Magazine (where her essay, “Switched at Midlife” won “Most Memorable”), Steinbeck Review, Writer’s Digest, and Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art (where her essay received Honorable Mention in the annual Creative Nonfiction Contest). Sharon’s essays have also been finalists for the Bellingham Review’s Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and in Creative Nonfiction’s True Crime contest.
Along with an MFA (with Distinction) in Creative Nonfiction Writing from National University, Sharon holds a BA (summa cum laude) in English from Regis University, and a Diploma in Irish Studies from the National University of Ireland, Galway.
Sharon teaches personal essay writing classes online for Writer’s Digest University and Irish genealogical research classes online for Family Tree University. She is also part of the adjunct genealogy faculty for Salt Lake Community College’s online Certificate in Genealogy program. As an Associate Faculty in the English Department for Ashford University, Sharon teaches English Composition courses.
You can reach Sharon through her website www.NonfictionHelp.com.