Writing Your Family History: Five Hints from Chloe’ Yelena Miller

My friend Chloé Yelena Miller will present a workshop on “Writing Your Family History” at the Ann Arbor Book Festival Writer’s Conference, which will take place on Friday and Saturday, May 15-16, 2009. (Chloé is also coordinating the Author Breakfast that will take place as part of the Festival on May 16.)

If you can’t get to Ann Arbor, you’ll appreciate Chloé’s guest post, featuring tips on her workshop topic. And if you can get to Ann Arbor, perhaps you’ll want to check out the conference for yourself.

Writing Your Family History: Five Hints from Chloé Yelena Miller

On the first day of an adult memoir writing class I taught a few years ago, I asked the students what motivated them to take the class. One elderly woman said that she has been waiting for her children and grandchildren to ask her about her life story. They never did. She decided to take up the pen and write her own story.

Don’t risk losing your family’s stories. Here are five hints to help you collect, preserve and share family stories.

    1. Start with what you know. Make a list of memories. Then, work step by step to add details and develop the narrative scene by scene. Try to include details that involve the five senses (What did the food taste like? Was there air conditioning?)

    2. Expand on your memories by discussing them with family members. Inevitably, they will remember something differently. One technique is to share what you’ve written and ask them to fill in the blanks. Ask specific questions (What do you remember eating on your birthday? How did you find your first job?) Another technique, which is a more standard interview process, is to ask your family members very open ended questions. You could start with asking them about their earliest memories and what they enjoyed doing as children. Practice listening and don’t interject your own memories. See what they come up with.

    3. Family history isn’t relegated to the past. Journal regularly to keep track of your life and what you witness. Include quotes from relatives that display their tone and speech patterns. Note where and when moments took place such as personal moments between you and a loved one and national moments, like Obama’s inauguration.

    4. Learn (or remember) more about the past. If you are writing about something from your parents’ generation, read contemporary novels that they might have read as teenagers. Watch movies set in that period. Look at local newspaper ads. The word changes so quickly; remember what it was like then (without the internet, cell phones, etc.) Consider how daily life was different and use your findings as prompts for future questions.

    5. Share your findings with family members. You may decide to make photocopies of your stories and documents, share scanned pictures on a website or even ask family members to write their own memories. This last holiday season, I asked family members to write a short piece about past Christmas celebrations. Each resulting piece was intimate and shared a slightly different experience. Being from a younger generation from most of the contributors, I loved learning about their past in their own words. They brought up details that I wouldn’t have known to ask about. Relatives had a chance to organize their memories and reminisce together, even across geographical boundaries.

My mother, a professional photographer, and I have compiled a collection of paired poems and photographs documenting our family’s emigration from southern Italy to New Jersey. These pieces are based on visits to the town where our family originated, oral histories collected with Americans and Italians, historical documents and cultural history about the towns and time periods involved. What we created contains an emotional truth and some facts, but the stories mostly contain facts as we experienced them or as they were told to us. We continue to translate the experiences in the form of our art.

Good luck and enjoy the journey.

Chloé Yelena Miller has poems published or forthcoming in Alimentum Journal, Lumina, Privatephotoreview.com, South Mountain Poets Chapbook, Sink Review and The Cortland Review. Her manuscript, Permission to Stay, was a finalist for the Philip Levine Prize in Poetry. She teaches writing online for Fairleigh Dickinson University and edits Portal Del Sol. She received an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and a B.A. from Smith College.

2 thoughts on “Writing Your Family History: Five Hints from Chloe’ Yelena Miller

  1. emilydixieson says:

    cool article. Makes me want to do this next Christmas and family reunion!

  2. Erika D. says:

    Let us know how it works out!

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