By Brian Kaufman
Originally posted December 20, 2019
Writing for family is slightly different than writing about family. Writing about family may involve dysfunction. And that is a tricky matter, requiring honesty, compassion, and a thick skin. As well as a willingness to be abjured. I’m talking about telling the sort of stories that are recalled at family gatherings. The endearing moments that make up a family’s story are worth preserving and sharing.
I give occasional seminars on self-publishing options. The very first thing I discuss is the writer’s purpose in writing. Not everyone sits down to a keyboard with a best-seller as their driving motivation.
For some, telling the one story they’ve carried inside and then seeing it in print is enough. Some want part-time income. Others want to build a writing career. And for some writers, writing for their family is enough.
Sometime after my father’s parents died, he and his sister decided to put together a book called Memories of Walt and Hazel. Dad wrote some essays. My aunt Bunny wrote some essays and poems. They gathered photos and made a book that has been a cherished keepsake.
Along the way, they made great choices, and mentioning those choices might help anyone who is similarly inclined.
First, the book is not organized chronologically. My father’s essays were topical. The order in which they were placed reminded me of an old Monty Python line, “And now, for something completely different.”
He bookended the content by opening with a family tree, followed by his own earliest childhood memories. He closed with three essays written by grandchildren. This loose (but logical) organization removed the tyranny of a fixed timeline, replaced by a casual, conversational approach.
IF YOU CANNOT GET RID OF THE FAMILY SKELETON, YOU MAY AS WELL MAKE IT DANCE.
~GEORGE BERNARD SHAW
My father’s essays were short, 300-700 words, each with a theme. Are You an Individual? These addressed my family’s quirks in a way that made them seem heroic (even when silly). What Do You Believe, and Why? These recounted family dinner discussions, where the only two sins were not having an opinion or having one without evidence.
AFTER A GOOD DINNER ONE CAN FORGIVE ANYBODY, EVEN ONE’S OWN RELATIONS.
Some of my father’s pieces were serious (A Depression Diet), and some were hilariously irreverent (Are You Saved?). If you compile a list of topics, look for a range of subjects and tones.
The writing is straight forward. My father wrote just like he talked. His voice lives in Memories of Walt and Hazel. If you tackle a project like this, try to sound like yourself. Don’t think you have to be flowery or literary. Be you.
My father’s essays took up more than half the book. Of course, there were plenty of other contributors. A memoir of this type has plenty of room for additional contributors.
Finally, my father and aunt added pieces of Walt and Hazel’s actual voices. Hazel wrote in a journal, and Walt was a published poet. A taste of each was a marvelous addition to the book.
Suppose you wrote your family’s stories? What topics would you cover? A great way to start is to compile a list of stories/topics/events that might deserve an article about the length of a blog entry.
We, humans, differentiate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom by our words. Writing about family captures the past in a way nothing else can, providing a framework and context for understanding. Your audience will be small but appreciative. We live in a print-on-demand world with plenty of low-cost options for putting a physical book into the hands of your loved ones.
A noble motivation for writing indeed!