Memoir Writers Explore: Stories Are Gifts and Why That Matters

by Matilda Butler on November 21, 2017

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #237 – Memoir Writing Tips – Matilda Butler

Why Sharing Life Stories Matters

When holidays approach, I often write an article for memoir writers to take up pen (or keyboard) and write one or more life vignettes to give to family members and to friends. They make such a great gift for stories are gifts. Some years I add a few writing prompts to the blog post just to get you started down a new path or to inspire you to dig deeper.

Now I have a new perspective. Recently, I found a New York Times story from 2013 that spotlights an important reason to share stories. It turns out that individuals are stronger, more resilient when they understand their family narrative, their family’s stories.

The research goes back to 2001 when a psychologist, working with children who have learning disabilities, noted that those “who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges.” The psychologist’s husband and one of his colleagues decided to see if research would support that observation.

The two researchers (Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush) developed a “Do You Know” 20-item questionnaire and had 48 families respond. The children took a series of psychological tests. In addition, the researchers were allowed to tape some of the dinner table conversations with each of the families. After analyzing all the information, the researchers found:

“The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The ‘Do You Know’ scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

Okay. Interesting. But maybe not a report that makes you get up out of your chair and shout “Now I’ve got it.” However, I think the next two parts just may shape the way you interact with your children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren and the way you think about the value of sharing your stories. In other words, this research is one more way to get and keep us writing and telling our stories.

Part 1: The tragedy of 9-11 took place just two months after the conclusion of the study. Though shocked and saddened, the researchers soon realized that they could go back to the children and families they had studied to see if knowledge of family stories made a different when there was an obvious stress situation. They found:

“The ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”

You’re probably wondering why knowing about the family (such as where your grandmother went to school) could make a different in how stress is handled. The answer suggested by the researchers is that this knowledges gives a child a “sense of being part of a larger family.”

Part 2: In addition, the researchers found three general family narratives. One of these is more helpful to children (and probably to all of us). The first narrative is that of a family that started with nothing and now is successful. What we might call a positive spiral. The second narrative is just the opposite, a family that once had a lot and has lost it (due to many different factors). The third narrative, and the most productive, is one familiar to memoirists. The researchers call it the “oscillating family narrative.” It tells the positive stories as well as the negative struggles that have taken place. And no matter what, these families convey that one can come back from adversity and move forward.

Duke and Fivush designate the children whose knowledge includes the richness of family stories as having a strong “intergenerational self.” In other words, they understand that they are part of something bigger than just themselves.

And that belongingness to interconnected family members is the atmosphere we help create when we write, or even when we tell, our life stories.

Reading this article changed me

Family Stories

My family has always been storytellers. My father passed his love of a good story down to me. There have been times when I felt that maybe I dwell too much on family stories. I know that I repeat tales. But now, I understand that these stories play an important role in helping the next generations not only survive but thrive.

On with the stories. And while written stories are precious gifts to give at any holiday, it is also valuable to tell stories at family meals when a few or many are gathered around the table. This year, I’m getting out a photo of my paternal grandmother with all of her siblings to share at the next family get-together. There are so few large families now that the picture of her with her 11 number of brothers and sisters will be the first point of discussion. Imagine. Twelve children. Then we’ll talk about how her family made their way in a covered wagon from Iowa to eventually settle in the Indian Territory (years before it became the state of Oklahoma). When Grandmother Matilda (yes, I have the honor of being named for her) married at the age of 19, she and my grandfather (age 30) left the Choctaw Nation of the Indian Territory just long enough to travel to Ft. Smith, Arkansas for a simple marriage ceremony. And finally, I’ll pull out the photo of my grandmother and grandfather, seated in front of the seven sons and two nephews that she raised. Again, just imagine raising nine boys.

And the stories radiate outwards with many of them still to be told to Matilda Lou (my granddaughter) and two grandsons.

Where do your stories lead you? How can they contribute to the wellbeing of your family members? Be sure to explore this valuable aspect of memoir.

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