We all have stories within us. Eliciting those stories from family elders, or getting our own down on paper, though, is not always easy.
Here at Modern Heirloom Books, we do not strive to publish full biographies or memoirs; rather, we want to help you curate your family’s stories—through words and pictures—in a way that your children (and hopefully their children’s children) will want to interact with them. A book of family memories, after all, is worth nothing if no one connects with it. We most often use what is referred to as a quilt-work approach to storytelling: weaving vignettes and small narratives around photographs or other mementos that spark memory and serve as a touchstone to the past, carefully connecting them to a broader theme to create a textured picture of an individual.
We’re at your disposal: Some folks like to hand over a few boxes of photos and memorabilia, and guide the book-making process from afar.
Others prefer to do much of the heavy-lifting in terms of story gathering themselves. With that in mind, I have read piles of books that promise to help you write your family’s stories, and narrowed a long list down to a manageable 5 titles that we recommend. These are especially helpful for non-writers, but even for professional editors and wordsmiths, there is much wisdom to be gleaned specifically about writing about your own life and your family.
(Note: These are in no particular order!)
5 Top Book Titles for Autobiographical Writing, Reviewed
1 The Oral History Workshop
The Oral History Workshop: Collect and Celebrate the Life Stories of Your Family and Friends by Cynthia Hart with Lisa Samson (Workman 2009)
Once upon a time, a book such as this would not have been necessary, as the authors are quick to point out: “...when people lived in small, tight-knit communities, with or within a stone’s throw of their families. When stories, lore, and family history were essential parts of everyday life.” These days, not so much.
This book is concerned with an oral history, and as such doesn’t provide much in the way of writing help—so why include it? Well, it is the most complete source I have found for helping people prepare for interviews. And since your memory alone cannot convey an entire family’s stories (not to mention the fallibility of memory in general), interviewing loved ones may be the quickest and most accurate route to capturing what you want.
The Oral History Workshop lays out plenty of preliminary guidance, from technical aspects such as recording and archiving your interviews to ethical considerations including listening with compassion and sharing sensitive information. It even includes a chapter with basic ideas for, as the authors write, “turning your interviews into something more,” like scrapbooks and an inheritance for future generations.
It is the longest central chapter, though, entitled “Ask a Question, Gather a Story” that propels me to recommend this book to you. While interviews are highly personal endeavors, and each interviewee will have a unique past from which to draw stories, sometimes getting the ball rolling can be challenging. Hart and Samson provide an array of sample questions to inspire the reader. More than 800 questions are bulleted in 64 categories. And if that seems overwhelming, well, it can be—but the editors have been careful to make the chapter skimmable, and have included a sidebar, “The Terrific Twenty,” which lists 20 “all-around great questions” as a shortcut to getting started. I suggest tackling this chapter in the evening—you can even do so while watching some brainless TV show—and highlighting categories and questions that resonate (or do so on photocopies of the pages, with a set for each person you plan to interview).
You’ll of course want to focus on specific content for every individual—it’s virtually impossible to chronicle a person’s life from birth to retirement, yet of even greater importance is that doing so would bore your audience to death! Decide on a likely story arc before your interview, and choose questions accordingly. Just remember that, through attentive listening and thoughtful follow-up questions (think of your interview as a conversation, with one person doing most of the talking) you’re likely to get off course from your planned questions—as you should. As the authors write: “It’s possible that the interviewee has his own map for the interview, his own priorities and interests, his own list of things he wants to express…. Encourage him to talk about the things that matter so much to him. Don’t feel that you’ve gone astray by setting aside your questions and exploring uncharted territory.” See where the conversations lead, and be open to new directions.
Paperback, $10.55 at Amazon.
2 Writing about Your Life
Writing about Your Life: A Journey into the Past by William Zinsser (Marlowe 2004)
William Zinsser, who was a lifelong journalist, is most well-known for his landmark book On Writing Well, a mainstay resource for writers for generations. In this title, he focuses on memoir writing specifically, and does so with his typical eloquence and wisdom.
This book has two main premises:
One, don’t plan out your entire personal history; rather, let the stories take you on a journey. “Be ready to be surprised by the crazy, wonderful events that will come dancing out of your past when you stir the pot of memory. Embrace those long-lost visitors. If they shove aside some events you originally thought you wanted to write about, it’s because they have more vitality.”
“To write well about your life you only have to be true to yourself.”
And two: Think small. Zinsser wisely advises not to think about the “important” events in your life. Instead, write about “small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory.” These are likely the ones that contain a morsel of universal truth, that will resonate with readers. And they should not be 5,000 words. Brief stories told with meaningful details and palpable emotion are more evocative than lengthy treatises any day. One of my favorite tips: “Be content to tell your small portion of a larger story. Too short is always better than too long.”
Zinsser focuses on writing a memoir, and I imagine most of you who follow Modern Heirloom Books are not especially interested in completing a full biography. That doesn’t mean, though, that this book doesn’t contain sage words for you, as well, as it assuredly does. When writing scenes from your life—short stories that capture the essence of a person, a time, or a place—all the same memoir-driven lessons apply.
Indeed, Zinsser weaves what he refers to as “mini-memoirs” into this teaching book: Readers are taken along on a captivating journey through Zinsser’s own past while being given instructional notes along the way. The book is a pleasure-read with advice woven in, not a typical self-help book by any stretch.
Zinsser’s main message is clear and so on par with our own opinion here: “To write well about your life you only have to be true to yourself.” His demonstration of craftsmanship in this book will enhance your writing, and give you the tools to take pen to paper without fear. You’ll be inspired by Zinsser’s example (his words and stories are wonderful) as well as by his teaching.
Paperback, $12.43 at Amazon.
3 Handling the Truth
Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart (Gotham Books, 2013)
I’ll state this upfront: This book is written for writers. Aspiring memoir writers, to be precise.
Why share this in this forum, then, you might ask? Because it is the book I wallowed in: I luxuriated in Kephart’s language, savored her insights, letting the lyricism and rhythms of the writing wash over me. Feel her words:
“Time is the memoirist’s salvation and sin. Time is the tease and the puzzle. Time is the trickster, the tormentor, the vexer. Time solved or resolved is memoir mostly mastered.”
While Kephart writes for writers, there is such value in immersing oneself in her attitudes about writing the self, about opening oneself to vulnerability, about the startle of details and discovering truth at the edge of the frame and the nature of love...all of this is wisdom even the non-writers among us will grasp at, cling to, think upon. And regarding love, take note: “Love,” she writes, “is where life stories start, no matter what one is writing about.”
Allow yourself to embark on this journey with Kephart. Just as reading biographical writing will inspire and inform your own life story practice, so too will reading Handling the Truth. For amidst the technical advice and deep dives into honing the meat of your memoir, this book weaves so many golden nuggets for you, too.
“Journal keeping, diary making, blogging—it’s all a curious thing, and it isn’t...memoir. But it’s a start, an inroad, a gesture.” Kephart spends a good portion of the book on what she calls “not-yet-writing-memoir work”—preparatory ideas, tapping memories, conjuring beauty, exploring diversions, finding your story. I am betting you will relish those parts. And in the relishing, there will be epiphanies that will make you see your life in new ways, write your life with your authentic voice.
One of my favorite gems from the book, I offer up as a call to action: “Let your words uncover you. Let your words prove you.”
Paperback, $13.29 at Amazon
4 How to Write Your Own Life Story
How to Write Your Own Life Story: The Classic Guide for the Nonprofessional Writer by Lois Daniel (Chicago Review Press, Fourth Edition 1997)
While the aforementioned two books were written largely with “writers” in mind, this next title was explicitly created to address non-writers, and it holds some key truths—and highly specific exercises—that may help you on your journey as a non-writer endeavoring to write your life story.
Written with a warm-hearted tone by a college professor, this book is built around 52 assignments, which parallel assignments Daniel used for years teaching inexperienced writers the craft of autobiographical writing. So if you were to write one assignment per week, theoretically you would have the raw material for your life story book in one year!
In a chapter entitled “Your Stories Don’t Actually Have To Be ‘Stories,’” Daniel provides a few examples of compelling pieces that might be considered essays rather than stories (which have a beginning, middle, and end). These composites of memories and ideas may be easier for many people to write, as they don’t have the pressure of conforming to traditional story structure, yet they are often equally revealing. She also encourages inclusion of “brief encounters,” snippets describing interesting encounters that occurred throughout a person’s life, giving your readers wonderful glimpses into your everyday life. Sometimes, short is sweet, and oh-so-evocative!
Daniel does not focus on polishing the writing (the final chapter does a shallow dive into how to approach revisions), focusing instead on how to efficiently and effectively record memories and start the process. Her assignments are akin to writing prompts, and what I find most helpful are the variety of examples of other students’ writing included throughout the book.
“I do believe that as a society we are emotionally undernourished in terms of understanding and feeling kinship with our heritage. Ours has been a society on a headlong dash into the future,” Daniel writes. “Consequently, unlike many older cultures which have been built on generations of traditions we have, to some extent, misplaced our past.”
"We have, to some extent, misplaced our past.”
We can help future generations have a meaningful link to their heritage by writing about our own lives and experiences—writing about the past, and writing “about today, which will be history tomorrow.”
Paperback, $13.59 at Amazon.
5 Memories of Me
Memories of Me: A Complete Guide to Telling and Sharing the Stories of Your Life by Laura Hedgecock (Plain Sight Publishing)
There’s a reason our first diaries come with a lock and key, notes Hedgecock: “For most of us, sharing our more vulnerable side—let alone our most personal thoughts and stories—does not come easily or naturally.” Of course, it’s precisely those personal stories that resonate and connect our loved ones to our journeys.
Hedgecock was inspired to write her book by a gift left to her by her grandmother: a spiral notebook filled with what she coined a “Treasure Chest of Memories,” writings that included stories about her childhood, recipes, nuggets of wisdom, and other heartfelt remembrances from her life.
In her book, formerly titled Treasure Chest of Memories: How to Capture and Share the Stories of Your Life, Hedgecock offers practical advice for novice memory keepers. Grounded in the world of scrapbooking, blogging, and social media, her tips do not merely cover writing and memory-jogging, but also span creative means of sharing your stories, whether in an old-fashioned journal or via more technologically savvy outlets, down to such nitty-gritty details as choosing an appealing and easy-to-read font and using photo-organizing software for digital images.
While Hedgecock does not offer as much guidance on the subtleties of strong writing (Kephart and Zinsser offer the most in terms of crafting lyrical prose and fine-tuning language), she goes much further in terms of rounding out family stories beyond the text. Her insights on using visual aids, including photographs, historical documents, and drawings; her out-of-the-box ideas for building a “treasure chest of memories,” including prayers, letters to loved ones, and even lists; and her heartfelt understanding of what an important journey the reader is undertaking, make this a perfect book for a non-writer who wants to leave a meaningful legacy behind.
Indeed, Hedgecock writes, “My goal is to assist you as you establish a rich endowment of memories, not to teach the art of writing.” And she does that with flair and enthusiasm, generously providing some psychological bolstering for those reluctant to write, as well as concrete tips for finding your voice and writing colloquially.
This book is available to buy in paperback, but I advise purchasing the e-book, which is not only cheaper but easier to navigate via search functionality and text highlighting capabilities.
E-book, $6.99 at Amazon.
Honorable Mention: To Our Children’s Children
To Our Children’s Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come by Bob Greene and D. G. Fulford (Doubleday 1993)
This compact book reminds me of the myriad memory journals found in bookstores today—the kind that prompt parents and grandparents to answer one question a day—only this book does not provide space to write those memories down. It is rather a companion to the writer, offering questions designed to open the doors to memory. “The particulars,” the authors say, are what your family will treasure most. Hear, hear!
Organized into thematic chapters, questions are easy to browse strategically (for example: High School; Holidays and Celebrations; Favorites; The House You Raised Your Family In), and the book is inviting enough to skim and quickly find a gem or two that appeals to your storytelling self (I loved, for instance, “Are you usually late or early?”, which prompted a number of telling and funny stories I would otherwise have forgotten all about!).
Hardcover, $17.19 at Amazon
You're on the road to reminiscing— and sharing your stories.
There are shelves of how-to books at your library about how to write—how to write better, how to write more clearly, how to write to persuade and sell, how to write to get published, how to write for marketing and SEO… None of those titles, however, will help you to write engagingly and concisely about your loved ones, yourself, or your family members. The books detailed above will hopefully put you on the road to reminiscence and retelling.
Be sure to follow us, as well, for an upcoming in-depth storytelling series on this blog with advice on: identifying the best family stories to tell; dealing with painful memories and stories about estranged family members; sparking your memory; interviewing techniques and tips; using photographs as prompts for life stories; and more.
No matter where you are in your storytelling process—if it’s just a flickering flame of an idea in your head or a fleshed-out drama written in journals for the past decade—we at Modern Heirloom Books are here to guide you along the process. Want to see what we can do together? Let’s create a legacy book that will become a family heirloom destined to be treasured for generations to come. Set up a consultation now!
Disclaimer: None of these books were provided to me. Before narrowing down this list, I frequented my local library a LOT, and ultimately purchased the five books I recommend via the reviews above. I hope you find a gem among them!