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What you lack, then, if you want to replicate your usual posting procedure, is prompts. For political posts, you have your news feed, which contains reports about some new outrage. It might be cruelty at the border, an attack on free speech, or police misbehavior. It often involves an ethical question, related to politics.

Right now, you do not have the equivalent for family history, or memoir. You have not even decided whether you want the writing to be primarily one or the other. Memoir carries a big burden for two reasons: you don’t particularly like to write about yourself, and you want to connect memories of your own life with historical events outside of your life. That’s a big burden for one monograph to bear: family life, personal life, and historical life. You may as well try to be Proust.

So let’s eliminate personal life as a primary subject. Family life ought to be primary. Events outside our family ought to be present, but secondary. You do not need to dwell on these events and developments. Yet culture, political events, and social conflicts do give context.

You thought that a timeline would provide both structure and writing prompts, but it has not worked out that way. Nothing is quite so effective that way as your news feed, which has headlines about all sorts of things. You scan the headlines, you read an article, and you are off. If you do not want to write posts about politics and current affairs, do not read the news.

You can solve this problem if you write your own prompts. That is the way I have thought about the matter so far: write kernels that you can expand later. Prompts can be more than that, though, especially for family histories. They can be letters, photographs, songs, smells, family anecdotes, objects, scraps of memory that come to mind in association with something else. You do not have a habit of writing these things down. Photographs and letters are not as accessible as your news feed.

We are not talking about getting started. You have already done that. You need to get started over and over. When you write in small chunks, when you have only a small amount of time to write during each session, you do not have time to build momentum. You are busy with many other activities. Therefore, you want to be productive during a large number of short writing sessions. Good prompts help you do that.

Like many people, you think visually, so perhaps the best prompts would be images you hold in your mind. You say you do not like description, but simple description of what you see in your mind could be the best way to conduct a short writing session. Examples: How did our house in Valley City look on the outside? How did it look on the inside? Describe your three-speed blue Schwinn bicycle. That leads easily into thoughts about what it meant to you. Another image: Laura floating down the stream during our trip to Montana. That is a simple story to tell: one of danger with a happy ending.

One story leads to another. In fact, you can note these other stories and descriptions as you write about one thing. For a simple example, you might want to describe your room on the third floor of the house in Des Moines. That leads readily to a description of the rest of the third-floor suite. The same goes for the second floor, and the first floor. 641 42nd Street is a big house. As people say, every house contains a lot of memories for those who lived in it.

Another thing that will help you: follow Pirsig’s principle of the brick. If you cannot write about a city or a neighborhood, or a building in a neighborhood, write about a brick in a building. Start with the smallest unit you can, then build out. My natural tendency for political writing is to start at a high level. Yes, the prompt often contains news of a specific event, but I readily ask, what is this an example of? My main interest goes to the ethics of the matter.

Family history is different. I believe you want to start with something small, and build out from it. If you jump from the prompt to something at a much higher level, you will run into trouble. In fact, I’m not sure the kinds of things you deal with in a family history connect to a higher level. These memories hold value in themselves: they tell stories, develop characters, and record significant events in your life. You build out to associated memories, places, objects, events, and stories, but all of these things remain at a similar level. You do not aim to draw larger significance from these memories.

Of course, the more you think about your family and its story, the more you come to know about yourself and your family. Larger significance for your family’s history leads to this kind of knowledge. You have recognized that as the second value of this activity. First value is to record these things for future and current family members. If you do not do it, all of these memories are lost when you leave this life. You want to leave these memories in writing, for entertainment, for instruction or edification, and as an anchor for your grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

You want to know where you come from. I realized how little I knew of my grandfather’s life, especially his early life, as I tried to reconstruct it for Letters Home. I know virtually nothing of my great-grandparents, on both sides of my family. On my mother’s side, I do not even know their names. My mother did not talk about her grandparents. I think the war may have obliterated those other memories. Perhaps her grandparents died during World War II, and she did not want to think about the subject.

That’s enough for this morning. We will drive to New York today. I already feel tired, and we still have a lot to accomplish. Every day is full; every day offers its own challenges and joys. You sensed that about life in early adolescence, and it remains true now. You do not know what will happen in a given day when you wake up, no matter how much structure or routine your life has. One thing you do know: your family has a large influence over what you experience each day!

Here is one more thing about writing prompts: do not worry about the character or word count at the end. If you do think about it, simply place a line at the bottom. Then write several keywords underneath the line. Productivity in short chunks matters.


house in Des Moines, house in Valley City, family history, writing prompts, great-grandparents, great-grandchildren, family anecdotes