Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Mini Memoir Moment: Family Legends—Are Memories True?

by Marcia Moston @MarciaMoston

After playing baseball in high school, my father played in a semi-pro league in the ’30s. He picked it up again in the ’50s after returning from war. He was a catcher and apparently a good hitter with a .436 batting average, although does admit to striking out against the great Satchel Paige. 

Each of my siblings and I have a mental image of Dad bending over home plate with a big rip up the seat of his uniform. Whether this is from an old newspaper clipping or from one of his games we might've attended as young children, I don’t know. But the picture doesn’t seem to exist. It makes me wonder if it were a family story, told so many times we collectively imaged it.

As I was going through his baseball scrapbook, I found a news clipping about the last game in a series in which the opposing team was favored to win. My father’s team held on for ten spirited innings, finally losing 2-1, even though it seems Dad did his best to annoy, confuse, and de-energize the opposing team. This is what the sports writer had to say:

The Cathedral catcher, Chadwick, caused much discussion because of his constant delay of play throughout the game. Twice while on base the fiery backstop, advancing a base on a foul ball, took an unnecessary amount of time in returning to his rightful position. Before going to bat in the eighth he walked out within ten feet of the batter’s box and took off his shoe and stocking, replaced it, tied the other shoe, and to top off the performance tucked in his shirt and pulled up his pants before proceeding to the plate. Finally immaculate, he struck out. 

After all that posturing he struck out! For those of you familiar with the famous baseball ballad “Casey at the Bat” this reads like a 1936 replay of a poem written in 1888. And maybe it’s the source of my memory.

Memories morph into images in the retelling. Much of what we remember is a reconstruction. Although the actual account may change, I think what stays true is the emotional meaning the original had for you. That’s the part that memoirists and family storytellers need to explore. Not that I’m suggesting fabrication—verify facts where facts can be verified, but own your side of the story as you remember it.

So what do you do when you remember something but someone else remembers it differently?

Tips to Tell it Differently

1. Tell your version but give your reader an alternate option: Although my sister remembers it this way . .  .” Or, if it’s a family legend you could introduce it as such—the family version is . .   . That’s what Rick Bragg did:

I am told it was a hot, damp night in late July 1959, one of those nights when the setting of the sun brings no relief. It might have been the heat, or something she ate—an orange slush and a Giant Dill Pickle—but about the time Charlton Heston laid eyes on that golden calf  . . . I elected to emerge.

2. Use identifying words like perhaps, maybe, it could have been . . . to let your reader know you are filling in gaps or surmising something that may have happened another way.

3. Check facts where they can be checked, ask family members their versions, but in the end own your story—use the memory you have to make the point you want to give away.

Here are some ideas to help you explore your family stories:

1. Write about an event the way you remember it and then ask someone who was involved what their version is. Where do you disagree? Are there “facts” you can verify? If not, does the difference matter to the story you have come to tell?

2. What are your family legends—stories handed down to which you may or may not have memory? How have they influenced you? What about them makes them special to you and yours?

Have fun going down memory lane. And remember—no arguing if someone else is sure their version is right. They can write their own story!



Marcia Moston is the author of Call of a Coward—the God of Moses and the Middle-Class Housewife. She was a columnist for the Greenville JournalHer stories have appeared in several magazines and anthologies—Chicken Soup for the Soul, and Angels on Earth, among others. She’s been on faculty at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and currently teaches memoir and creative nonfiction with the OLLI at Furman University program and leads spiritual autobiography workshops for church groups.


  1. Marcia,

    Thanks for these tips on capturing our family memories--which we would use for a memoir or a nonfiction book. Many authors forget about using these stories for the print magazine market. These stories would be called a personal experience story. Many editors are looking for these personal experience stories. If positioned as a magazine article, you can reach many more people with that article than most books (thousands and maybe millions).

    author of 10 Publishing Myths, Insights Every Author Needs to Succeed

    1. So true, Terry. People so often overlook the potential for personal stories in places other than memoirs.

  2. I appreciate these tips. There are seventeen years between me, the oldest of six siblings, and my youngest sister. Many of our family memories vary widely.

    1. Isn't that the way it is, Barbara. But it's nice to know there are lots of ways to tell your story and still be true to nonfiction expectations.

  3. This is awesome thank you.
    I am the mother of ten children who range 39-19 and I find it quite entertaining to listen to family perceptions by each child.
    I guess I’ll write the book so they get the stories straight lol

    1. Too funny, Soni! Yes I think you're the one. It could be the the ten-storied memoir.

  4. I'm leading the ACFW course for August, "When Fiction Meets Real Life." I hope to inspire fiction authors to apply everything they've learned about writing fiction to writing a memoir, autobiography, or biography. You've covered some excellent points here. May I send the participants to this blog post? May I quote you (with credits, of course).

    1. Lee. Good with me. Best on your course!

    2. Thanks, Marcia. And I printed out your whole article as inspiration through the lessons in August.

  5. This was a fun read! In our family, we all recall a funny moment when our son in elementary school got his little sister to chase a laser pen light in the woods. Our son called the light, as he zoomed it around, "bitin' bees". Hubby insists it was "busy bees". I have the worst memory in the family, but actually wrote it down the day it happened. Meanwhile, we all recall calling sister being a "busy bee" due to her energy! She now has her own 3yo busy bee :-)

  6. Even the story of the story is fun, Laurie!

  7. Thank you Marcia for the great advise. There were seven boys and myself in my family and we all remember our childhood differently. During conversations I've often playfully asked "are you sure we grew up in the same house.
    Good to see your post.

  8. Your tips and examples are helpful, Marcia. Such a fun post, too!

  9. Marcia!!! I am so excited to read you are on staff at Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference! I’m coming to the conference in November. Oh I so hope it actually happens. I can’t wait to see you after all year decades. Wonderful post above. With a huge family, everyone has their own details. I’m going to read this to my family!! Bobby sends his love to you and Bob!