Not sure how to start a family memoir?
How and where to start a family memoir?
As you can see in the five examples below, it’s quite common to begin with you, the author. To lead off with an “I” or “me” or “my” statement that places you squarely within the action and defines what the book is about – you and your relationship to the family.
See how these authors have worked themselves into their family memoirs, right from the start.
1. Start a family memoir with an object that holds memories
John McCain, Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir (2016) – a New York Times bestseller
I have a picture I prize of my grandfather and father, John Sidney McCain Senior and Junior, taken on the bridge of a submarine tender, the USS Proteus, in Tokyo Bay a few hours after the Second World War had ended. They had just finished meeting privately in one of the ship’s small staterooms and were about to depart for separate destinations. They would ever see each other again.
Despite the weariness that lined their faces, you can see they were relieved to be in each other’s company again. My grandfather loved his children. And my father admired my grandfather above all others. My mother, to whom my father was devoted, had once asked him if he loved his father more than he loved her. He replied simply, “Yes, I do.”
2. Start a family memoir with your education, in a far away place
Khizr Kahn, An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice (2017)
I carried a sheaf of papers almost as thick as my hand to the third floor of my dorm on New Campus, just across the canal from the academic buildings. My room was small and sparse, just a metal desk with a matching chair and a small electric fan to blow away a little of the Pakistani heat. It suited me. My clothes were tucked neatly into a closet, and my bed was a cotton mattress on the floor. There had been an iron bed frame, but it was too short for me, so out it went. Sleeping on the floor was better for my back, anyway.
3. Start a family memoir by describing something that sets you and your family apart
D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture (2016) – a New York Times #1 bestseller
Like most small children, I learned my home address so that if I got lost, I could tell a grown-up where to take me. In kindergarten, when the teacher asked me where I lived, I could recite the address without skipping a beat, even though my mother changed addressed frequently, for reasons I never understood as a child. Still, I always distinguished “my address” from “my home.” My address was where I spent most of my time with my mother and sister, wherever that might be. But my home never changed: my great-grandmother’s house, in the holler, in Jackson, Kentucky.
4. Start a family memoir with a recitation of family facts
Charles Bronfman, Distilled: A Memoir of Family, Seagram, Baseball, and Philanthropy (2017)
I was the fourth of four, with all that goes with that. Each of us, the children of Sam and Saidye Bronfman, were two years apart in age. Minda was born in 1925, Phyllis in 1927, Edgar in 1929, and me in 1931. My parents wanted me to be born on June 20, the same day Edgar was born and the same day as their wedding anniversary. Phyllis says they went for a ride on a bumpy road to try to induce my arrival, but I was stubborn and didn’t make an appearance until a week later. She chuckles that I was kind of a “squabby, long kid…like a chicken.” Whether it was the poultry look or not, I was most certainly the overprotected youngest of the family, something of a toy for the others. Phyllis says I was an adorable little kid with blond hair, and crossed-eyed, which meant I wore glasses with one lens frosted.
5. Start a family memoir by touching upon the thing that loomed so very large in your family’s life
Flora Miller Biddle, The Whitney Women and the Museum They Made: A Family Memoir (2017)
Ever since I can remember, the Museum hovered at the edges of my consciousness.
At first, like New York, the Museum was another faraway place to which my parents would disappear for weeks at a time to see “Mama,” my mother’s mother, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. “Mummy needs to see her mummy, too, just like you do,” my nurses would say. “She’ll be back soon.” Small comfort. She was surely too old to need a mummy.
The image of the Museum grew as I did. Much later, in the ‘50s, it came to symbolize a completely different way of life from mine.
Now that you’ve seen how to start a family memoir…
As you can see, there is no standard approach to beginning a family memoir. The best opening for your story will depend on your tone and theme, how familiar the readers are with your family, the point you’re making, and other factors.
For more on how to begin a memoir in general, see our “How to Start a Memoir.”
You can also see examples of how specific types of memoirs are started in these blogs: