Beautiful, heartfelt fragments

“How to tell your family story” sounds simple enough. But when you start to think about it – where do I start? what should I leave out? – the whole thing can become so overwhelming, that we do nothing.

Or if we do start, we might find we have amassed a lot of facts, often about milestone events, that don’t interest even us – and would certainly never interest anybody else.

But we’ve all read stories by other people, about their families, that are gripping and moving. What’s the secret?

One of the most important things to remember is that facts aren’t enough. The best family stories are skilfully woven through with what the people involved were feeling and thinking at the time – and, more importantly, with what the writer thinks and feels about it too, looking back.

The key here is honesty: it may not be The Absolute Truth, because other people will probably remember things differently – but it’s absolutely true to you. (There’s a reasonable chance that sharing this will feel awkward because it matters so much to you, and you may never have put it in words before.)

Another thing about facts: it’s not only the big ones that matter. A great family story includes, among the all the sensational events, insights that give a powerful sense of the everyday fabric of family life – the things that usually slip unrecorded into the past. It’s the contrast between the sensational and the everyday that gives each its power to move.

To break the job down into manageable chunks, we recommend you carry out exercises to help you capture those little things that tend to slip away (listed below).

Ideally, do this with somebody else, taking turns to help each other look back – and making sure to capture everything you remember, in writing, by drawing or using audio. It’s hard to believe until you try it, but talking to a willing and interested listener can yield much more detail – if you give each other full permission to ask questions (you don’t have to answer them all!). Keep asking each other, “What’s so important about that?”

Very early memories
What were they? What were the smells, sights, sounds?

Who did you eat with (special occasions and every day)? Where did you eat, and when? What kinds of food?

Make a map of journeys you took in childhood. Write a long answer to the question, Where are you from? Draw your childhood bedroom, in fine detail. Make a catalogue of the art that hung on the walls at home.

What precious items were lost, stolen or went missing? What would surprise your ancestors, or your descendants, about how you lived?

Who did you get your religious or political beliefs from? Whose got left behind?

Big moments
What were the big and small dramas? Who was involved? Feel free to include things that don’t seem globally significant but were very important to you at the time.

Challenge yourself to write a list of 50 facts or sincerely held beliefs about each individual family member. Big things, small things – stick it all down.

After doing this, you may have a sense of a story. If you wish, weave it together into one narrative. Or just let it stand as it is, as a collection of beautiful, heartfelt fragments.

JP Flintoff and Harriet Green

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