Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles on family history. Click here for the first article and here for the second.

In 1862, a Deseret News journalist nailed the importance of keeping a diary – a journal in modern vernacular. He said, “If a man keeps no diary, the path crumbles away behind him as his feet leave it; and days gone by are but little more than a blank, broken by a few distorted shadows. His life is all confined within limits of today… There must be a richness about the life of a person who keeps a diary… and a million more little links and ties must bind him to the members of his family circle, and to all among whom he lives” (Deseret News, July 16, 1862). Those words apply perfectly to recording personal and family histories:

Think of the yearnings for ties with our ancestors that have resulted in books and movies such as Roots. Our family’s story is not likely to make it to the silver screen, but we can give our children a sense of their family roots through a written history of our lives and the lives of our ancestors.

Passing on a Legacy

For all time, people writing down what they think and do and who they are, has been the vehicle for transmitting the story of what it means to be human. For those of a religious bent, this includes passing on what it means to be children of God. Our religious roots deepen as we listen to and read the testimonies and life experiences of family members and religious leaders.

Hodding Carter Jr. said, “There are two lasting bequests we can give our children: One is roots, the other is wings.” I believe that family roots – including our feelings about the faith of our fathers – are an important part of children’s wings.

As never before, our children need ties that bind them to a loving family system. Feeling alone, without knowledge of or connection to a family, is devastating and leaves children wide open to the influences of the world.

The written word can bind us to each other like little else we know. Every literate person brings to light hidden power when he writes about his own life and his ancestors’ lives – power to create ties that keep on binding, glue that keeps on sticking families together as long as the words can be read. Even if no one else benefited from the project, the writer of such histories would find his own roots and wings – and find life richer and more worthwhile!

So Many Ways to Do It Right

There is no one right way to leave a legacy. In fact, there are as many ways as there are people. The book Celebrating the Family suggests nine possible formats for a written history. If one of them doesn’t fit you, another probably will. They are:

  1. Narrative genealogy. When sufficient details are available you can recount your ancestral information in story form. (You will have sufficient details available for your own life is you keep a reasonably consistent journal!)
  2. Memoir. A family history version of an autobiography.
  3. Biography. A factual life story in a researched historical setting – made possible by interestingly written diaries, journals, and written histories of the time period.
  4. Family profiles. A collection of current family stories about nuclear and extended family, along with stories of family members of the past. These are “word snapshots” of random but meaningful life moments – not chronological, not connected, but interesting to read.
  5. Literary snapshots. Creative nonfiction that brings the past to life with imagined dialog, setting, and three-dimensional characters. It is the “rest of the story” based on careful research and logical assumptions. (This format is sometimes called “historical fiction, because the facts are historical, the characters real, but the dialog is made up and the feelings of the characters based on assumptions.)
  6. Cookbook family history. Adding family stories to family recipes. This is especially appropriate when cooking and eating together have been popular family traditions.
  7. Family documentary. Using your written history as a script for a family history video. Include images that are directly related to the written history, such as schools, homes, tombstones, churches, farms, personal photos, and more.
  8. Family journalism. Family stories and profiles written like newspaper or magazine articles.
  9. Pictorial history. Incorporating family snapshots into a family history or when plentiful, making the photos the center of the story.  (Celebrating the Family, The MyFamily.com Guide to Understanding Your Family History, From the editors of MyFamily.com/Ancestry Publishing, 2002, p. 117)

We would do well to start with a clear idea of what we want to end up with – and choose the format that best suits our vision. We should avoid making our plans too grandiose. In a talk on writing personal and family histories, George Durrant tells of a friend who, when asked if he had written any of his personal history, laid out a grandiose plan of what he intended to do.

Brother Durrant replied, “You’ll never do it.”

Shocked, the man asked, “Why not?”

“You’re thinking too big,” was the reply.  “Just get in and write a little heartfelt story from what you can recall. People don’t want volumes. They just want pages. They don’t need golden plates. Just plain paper will do. But get busy and do it. Write one experience at a time.”

Brother Durrant’s words are good advice for us all!

Choose Your Emphasis and Decide Where to Start

One other thing we need to decide as we begin is whether to emphasize one person – a personal history – or highlight the whole family. Personal life stories keep the focus on the individual, although they cannot avoid mentioning the whole family. Family histories, however, do not focus on a main character, but on the interactions of the family as a unit.

How do you decide where to start? Begin on the part of the project that excites you most. Start where you want to start. Whether that is telling about your life the past five years or telling about the history of your family of origin, or writing the story of your great-grandma who left you her journals. It doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you start. However, it is a good idea to record personal knowledge of your own living family close enough to the events you want to record that you can remember details that make the story deep and rich.

Proceed in an Orderly Step-by-Step Manner

Celebrating the Family suggests an 8-step process for writing any history you choose to do first:

  1. Gather the Materials
  2. Organize Your Findings
  3. Create a Timeline
  4. Create an Outline
  5. Choose an Outline Entry That Interests You and Begin Writing
  6. Keep Writing  (Celebrating the Family, The MyFamily.com Guide to Understanding Your Family History, From the editors of MyFamily.com/Ancestry Publishing, 2002, pp. 118-121)

I have elaborated on the first three steps in earlier articles, so I’ll start on step 4 – create an outline. An outline is more detailed than a timeline.  It lists all the events or stories that you want to include in the story in the order you think they happened. For example, if you were outlining your own history, you might list two or three memories that stand out in your mind for each year of school.

Naturally, you will continue to add to this outline as you remember things you want to include.

Step 5 is the most vital – and the most fun! If you never do step 5, your history will never get written. The best part of step 5 is that you get to choose what to write about depending on your feelings at the moment. Who ever said you have to start at the first? If you have a big elephant to eat, is there any rule about where you take the first bite? The only thing that matters is that you take a bite, and then another bite, and then another. 

So Step 6, the “Keep Writing” step, means that you keep choosing some particular scene or event that you feel like writing about at the moment, and write! Write anything that comes to mind. Don’t analyze, edit, or criticize your work at this point. Let your rough draft be rough, and don’t worry whether it is “good enough.” Only if you have a rough draft can you edit, expand, or polish it.

If you quickly run out of steam on a particular happening you are writing about, you might “interview” yourself, asking pertinent questions about the people you are telling about such as “How did they look? How old were they at the time? How did they act? What did they say? How did I feel about what was happening?”

Remember that you are not duty bound to include in the final history everything you write. You can cut out anything you please when you get to the polishing stage, so don’t be afraid to just let it all flow onto the page. Anytime you get bogged down, just put the draft aside and start on another where you feel fresh energy. You can always go back later and see if you can get more ideas on any section that you set aside unfinished.

We Can’t Finish What We Never Start

The whole point is to start – now! Now may be the only time you have. I had a friend who told me when she was in her late forties that she had found a way that worked for her to make progress on her history. Every day she wrote for five minutes on a 3-by-5 card about any memory that seemed significant, then filed it the appropriate section in a card file box. She had dividers that said “Early Childhood,” “School Days,” “College and Courtship,” “Early Marriage,” and “Later Years.” She was elated that her card file box was filling up with such a little bit of effort and time expended. 

I never heard whether she took those cards and wove them into a written history – but if not, that card file box alone would be a great treasure to her children and grandchildren. You see, she died in her early 50s, and if she hadn’t started when she did, would have left her family nothing of her own recorded memories. Other people can write your history – but it won’t be a personal history if you don’t write it. Nobody else knows what you know about your life.

Even if you write no more than five minutes, five lines, five paragraphs, somewhat consistently, you will eventually have five pages, and then 50! One page a week for a year adds up to 52 pages, but 0 x 0 adds up to 0!