The Art of Remembering: 9 Tips for Capturing Personal and Family Stories
Seventeen years after my Grandpa Bob passed away, my dad planned a family reunion at a park in northern Utah. Prior to the reunion, my dad invited his four siblings and their children to email him their favorite memories of Grandpa Bob. He compiled the memories into a 16-page document and printed a copy for everyone.
One of my favorite entries came from my cousin Natalie, who signed off with an apology: “I’m not a good writer so hopefully this all made sense. I’m sad my memory isn’t better.” I was surprised. The stories Natalie shared were interesting and specific, full of fun details and sayings that Grandpa was known for. Her words painted a vivid picture of him that made me miss him acutely. I didn’t notice any grammatical errors or misspelled words in that collection of memories because that’s not what matters. What matters is authenticity. What matters is that our stories are told—in all their imperfect glory.
In a December 1980 Ensign article, President Spencer W. Kimball promised Church members, “If you will keep your journals and records, they will indeed be a source of great inspiration to your families, to your children, your grandchildren, and others, on through the generations.” Would you like to make 2018 a year that you record more of your family stories? Let these simple writing tips empower you and inspire you to put pen to paper. No one is more qualified to tell your family’s story than you.
1. Tell Favorite Stories Aloud
One of the reasons my cousin’s words came alive for me is that her family members are all great verbal storytellers. They get together and reminisce and repeat some of the same stories over and over. This practice adds structure to fragmented memories, making it easier to write them down later.
2. Be Specific
Add as many relevant details as you can when sharing a memory. If you make a general statement, think about what evidence you could include to prove that you are telling the truth. For example, my cousin Natalie wrote, “I remember Grandpa always took very nice care of things.” If she had stopped there, the statement about Grandpa may still have been true, but it became much more memorable when she added this detail: “If he used the weed eater, he’d wipe it off and put it back in the box.” Now that tells a story about just how careful and meticulous Grandpa was. Not only did he keep the original box for years and years, he also took the time to wipe off dirty lawn equipment before putting it away. I love that detail; I can picture him doing exactly that.
Trigger Memories Authentically
3. Use Memory Triggers
Photos, keepsakes, clothing, and other objects can be wonderful memory triggers. Look through photo albums at relatives’ homes, and see what stories come to mind. Then add these to a list of stories to tell. Visit the neighborhood or city where you once lived. Walk around, notebook in hand, jotting down any thoughts that surface. You can also use questions or writing prompts, like the #52stories project, to bring meaningful memories to mind.
4. Let Your Thoughts Percolate
You may find it hard to summon stories on demand; your memories just may not work that way. If you’re using writing prompts or trying to answer a list of questions, read through them at the beginning of the week, and then set them aside for a few days. You’ll be surprised what you can remember after the questions or prompts have marinated in your mind for a while—especially if you’re prayerful about it.
5. Gather Memories from Other People
Consult siblings, children, cousins, and other relatives to help round out your memories of a person or event. Natalie talked to two of her sisters before typing up the final list of memories that she sent to my dad. I’m so grateful that all my cousins and aunts contributed their perspectives, despite any writing insecurities they might have felt. Now we have a well-rounded picture of this man we all love—from those who knew him as a young father, those who knew him as an aging grandfather, those who saw him daily, and those who saw him only a few times a year.
Keep It Simple
6. Use Your Handwriting
Have you ever encountered a recipe written in your grandmother’s hand and thought, “Wow, I miss her”? Your handwriting is unique, and your family will want to have something written by you. They won’t judge you for sloppy or imperfect handwriting. Instead, they’ll treasure the item as a piece of you. That said, you don’t have to handwrite every part of your personal and family history. Keep memories in several ways and several places, using computer documents, your phone, voice-recording technology, videos, photographs, and more.
7. Write the Way You Speak
Forget about formality and the rules of writing. Just do your best to allow your authentic voice to shine through. The more your written words reflect the way you speak, the better. Some professional writers take years to find their “voice” and to feel truly at home with their style, so don’t worry if writing seems awkward to you at first. If you find yourself stuck while writing, just pretend that you’re telling the story out loud to a friend. Say each sentence out loud, and then write down what you said. It’s that simple.
Make It Last
8. Keep Multiple Journals
Long-form, paragraph-style writing is just one way to preserve memories. I have a journal like that, but I have other kinds of journals too. I use the Evernote app on my smartphone to save spiritual insights and aha moments. I have miniature notebooks in which I capture funny things my kids say. Several times in my life, I’ve used a blank wall calendar as a journal, writing one tiny memory a day inside those little squares. (I did this for my daughter from the day she was born until her first birthday. I’m doing it now for my infant son.) Do what you have to do to remove barriers and make journaling fit your lifestyle, even if that means carrying a notebook in your purse or journaling on your smartphone from the dentist’s waiting room.
9. Make It a Regular Practice
The more you exercise your writing muscles, the more easily and naturally your words will flow. President Henry B. Eyring kept a daily journal when his children were young, with the goal of revealing God’s influence on his family’s life. “I wrote down a few lines every day for years,” he said in the October 2007 general conference. “I never missed a day no matter how tired I was or how early I would have to start the next day. Before I would write, I would ponder this question: ‘Have I seen the hand of God reaching out to touch us or our children or our family today?’”
If daily journaling sounds overwhelming, set aside a block of time once a week, as the #52stories project encourages you to do. You could also pick one month a year, maybe your birthday month, to write briefly every day to catch up on memories, insights, and lessons learned during the previous 12 months.
As a teenager, I used to take my journal to stake conference—a 2-hour church meeting held twice a year—and write about my life during the hymns and during certain talks that my teenage self didn’t think were relevant to me. To this day, stake conference is my reminder to pull out my journal. I use the extra hour I’m not at church to get caught up on major life events, and I capture spiritual impressions, thoughts, and quotes shared during the meeting itself. What annual, semiannual, or quarterly events could you use as reminders to sit down and write about your life?
Continue On in This Important Work
“From time immemorial the Lord has counseled us to be a record-keeping people,” said Family Search. He called journaling an “important duty.”
Still, many of us put up mental barriers. We make it too hard, despite having access to so many useful tools. However, if you’ll keep these 9 simple tips in mind, you’ll find it easier than you thought to access your memories and write them down.
“You should continue on in this important work of recording the things you do, the things you say, the things you think, to be in accordance with the instructions of the Lord,” said President Kimball. “Your story should be written now while it is fresh and while the true details are available.”
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