Writing your family memoir is like dusting for fingerprints.

You leave behind almost invisible fingerprints when you touch anything–refrigerator door handles, light switches, drinking glasses. Detectives know how to carefully coat these unseen marks with a fine powder and then use a camel hair brush to gently remove the excess powder so the fingerprints appear.

Families powerfully imprint each of us early in life in a myriad of unique ways, leaving their marks (some might say scars!) forever. But like fingerprints, they are often nearly impossible to see clearly–especially if we are the ones upon whom the marks have been made.

So how to become detectives and discern in what ways our families have left their almost imperceptible imprints? What is the comparable fingerprint-revealing dusting powder that solves our own mysteries? During the process of writing your family memoir, subtle family dynamics suddenly appear. One memoirist likens the process of writing one section of her family memoir to watching a photograph as it’s developing in a chemical bath. The whole picture becomes clearer and clearer as you work on it.

Memoir often flows from journal writing, but the difference is that journal writers usually write about each day as it is happening. In contrast, memoir writers look back at their journey with fresh eyes, with a perspective that develops by examining the past, by remembering family stories. Usually not written directly from journal entries themselves (although in some cases they are), memoir is a way to go back in time, to really examine, digest, sort out and make sense of your life. Memoir turns daily disparate police reports into the detective story with the mystery solved. While writing a memoir, new clues surface, the process shifts and sharpens your understanding, and the picture becomes clearer and more detailed.

Barbara Graham is a detective–um…rather, memoirist who recently edited and wrote a piece in the New York Times bestselling book, Eye of My Heart. She knows about memoir writing and about learning about herself from the process of writing your family memoir.

Written by Barbara Graham