Writing Living Histories: The Memory Book

I believed my family was close. I grew up with both parents in the home and two brothers, near my mother’s parents who lived a few miles away. We talked about family history regularly. It wasn’t until I took an elective course in college called Introduction to Writing Family History that I realized how little we discussed living family history.

A dear friend recently shared what she and her husband are doing to preserve their living history, rather than leaving recollections for after they’re all gone.

Of course, Jill Adair, an associate faculty member at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, knows the value of recent memory compared to recalling facts years later. She shared her family’s approach at a church workshop, displaying and discussing her own Memory Book.

In place of physical presents, she and her husband ask for memories from their grown children. They leave the prompt open. The memories could be a few sentences to a page and a half long. Pictures are encouraged, but not necessary.

This project, for her, is fairly low maintenance. The memories often arrive as documents by email, but are sometimes handwritten at the last minute. The most challenging part, she said, was organizing them. Her daughter tried, but things got sticky when deciding how to structure them – date they were written, date of the memory, by author, or by subject?


Memory, by its nature, sits between times. One of my favorite books on memoir – The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again  – discusses how memory shifts depending on when a person recalls an event. There’s you (current), you (past), and you (reflective) that mediates them. (For more resources on writing memories or a full memoir, see our post You’re Writing a Memoir?)

I look forward to starting a Memory Book for my family, especially since I’ll get to see how my brothers recall some shared experiences.

Here are a few points to consider if you’re interested in creating your own family memory book:

  • Include a family tree, with aunts, uncles, and cousins, to keep with the stories. This can serve as a reference for common names shared between stories, even if that person is not actively contributing.
  • Create a consolidated storage file for stories, and a code system for organizing them. You could include the date received, the initials of the author, the title, or any other data point that helps you. Personally, I’d suggest a folder for each holiday for which you ask for memories (ex. Mother’sDay2017, DadBirthday2018), the initials of the author on the document, and a short title indicating what the memory is.
  • Getting a family agreement will make the process easier. Bypassing a traditional gift may be a tough adjustment. If this is how you want to do things, or if you just want to start this as a separate holiday tradition, get everyone on the same plan. Use an opportunity to sit down with family and let them know what you’re asking of them. Some people may not feel comfortable with their writing skills. Others may not want their contributions shared. This should be a unifying project, not something that confuses, offends, or divides you.
  • For large, wide-spread families, a dedicated email or web page may be helpful. This can help whoever is curating the collection keep track of dates, authors, and can help with distributing updates and sending reminders to send the requested stories.

A project like this is long-term. The investment, however, is worth it.

Consider the value of these memories when a family member passes. On a lighter note, the collection can be a colorful contribution for later reunions and holiday parties.

If this sounds like a nice fit for you and your clan, give it a try and let us know how it goes.

If you’ve found another method for keeping living histories, feel free to share. It could be someone else needs your idea to get to work preserving their family history.


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