Tips for Writing Your Family’s Story

By Kathryn Wisniewski

UW researcher and 2019 Woman to Watch Denise Ney co-wrote “Otti Remembers,” her mother’s personal account of growing up in Germany before and after World War II. It took the mother-daughter pair over three years to compose the book.

“I understand my mother in a way that I never would have if we had not done this,” Ney says.

While Ney and her mother began their project independently and found help along the way, author and writing coach Sarah White created First Person Productions to aid people from start to finish in chronicling their stories.

White describes her process as giving people a “DIY approach” to putting together family histories. She uses her expertise and experience to guide writers in creating their own stories.

It can be helpful to start small. Writing a whole book of family history like “Otti Remembers” can seem like a big undertaking, but documenting the family goings-on could be as simple as starting a family newsletter you put out once or twice a year.

If you are planning to dive into a larger project, White suggests starting with two tools. First, she recommends creating a timeline to show the chronology of events in a family’s history. Second, starting with a list of prompting questions, can help dig out things you want to know more about.

“You have to ask yourself why you’re doing it, and you’re really doing it for the future generations,” Ney says. “The more complete and the more context your story has, the more it will mean for the future generations.”

Keep an eye out for our November issue, where we’ll have more on the value and process of recording family stories, just in time for your holiday family gatherings.

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