Monday, October 3, 2011
Memoir: A Historical Backbone
Posted by Nancy Owens Barnes
Anne Bradstreet was the first woman to have her book published in the United States. And like Bradstreet, who documented the difficulties of being a Puritan wife and the hardships of life in colonial times, we each have a basic human desire to leave a piece of ourselves behind before we depart this world. We want others to know how we lived, our achievements, our tragedies, our lessons learned.
This desire can manifest itself through oral communication such as the family stories told to us by our parents and grandparents. Before my father passed away he began telling me stories of his childhood he had never shared, not because they were unusual or extraordinary, but simply because of his desire that they not be lost with his passing.
The desire can also manifest itself through tangible items such as the special rings, dishes, photos, recipes, cookbooks and other items passed down to us, as well as in a written form such as letters, diaries, and journals. Our family has been given detailed journals written by both my father-in-law and a distant cousin who were compelled to write about their experiences during WWII and share them with family.
It is that need to leave a part of our lives behind by sharing our experiences and memories—whether those experiences include overcoming tragic circumstances, healing from a tragic childhood, surviving the battle field, or simply sharing our optimism for life—that drives our desire to let others know.
There are several ways to share family stories, one of which is currently popular: writing a memoir.
As we can see from the books published today, memoirs are no longer only for past presidents and the famous. Readers have a hunger for the interesting stories of ordinary people. After publication of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes in 1996, sales of memoirs spiked and before long, more memoirs were being sold to publishers than fiction.
If you plan to write a memoir, regardless of whether you intend it for mainstream publication, it can be a valuable gift for your family.
There doesn’t have to be a tragedy or an extraordinary event to write your family history. One of my favorite memoirs is Annie Dillard’s, An American Childhood, in which Dillard’s beautiful prose leads readers through her keen observations of the world around her as she grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.
With today’s self-publishing print and digital options, it is easier than ever to document your history and share it with others. But although many memoirs are published today, there are still millions of pieces of family history that never make it to the press, yet are passed down from family to family to be reread and retold.
It seems to me that if history represents the body of human experience, these stories of ordinary people would be the backbone of that experience.