English 881/781: Narrative Inquiry — Family Story

The Story Task

Some of the most powerful stories of all are the ones we grew up with, stories that our parents and other family members told us. Most of these were everyday stories too, but some might have stood out in your mind: like stories of family trips or holidays or celebrations (like births and weddings).

For this writing task, I want you to write a Family Story. You are free to choose any story you like. However, consider this. Stories are what make us family. Maybe you always tell a story at the holidays about “the time Mom accidentally burned the…” Maybe you know the story of how your parents met. Maybe the day your first child was born is clear in your mind (but does that second child know their birth story?). All of these stories matter to you and your family.

But there are also a lot of good family stories you probably don’t know. Do you know how your grandparents fell in love? Do you know how your parents wound up in the home you grew up in? Do you know the first job your mom had or the first car your dad ever drove? There’s so much interesting stuff for you to learn about your family.

The goal for this writing task is to see if we can help you find a story worth saving. Call it looking for a family heirloom: A story heirloom.

Story Guidelines

  • The final version of your Family Story should be about 5-7 pages in length. Although I won’t penalize anyone for page length, I do like to give you a target range. You don’t need to write 10 pages now because we have a lot of other writing still to do!
  • This narrative should be in a typical 12-point font, double-spaced, with 1 inch margins.
  • You will be sharing a draft of this story with other class members, so please write with a real audience in mind. That means you should avoid writing anything that is too private to share.

Story Linkages

  • If you can see a useful way to link your Family Story to one or more of the the other stories you write, I encourage you to make that connection. Your book will feel more cohesive if there is some common ground among the stories.
  • You might want to use some of the same characters or settings across your stories.
  • You are not required to make connections like this. It’s fine if all the stories you write are entirely stand alone. But if you can make connections among your stories, that’s even better.
  • Remember, though, that these are your stories, so tell them however you think is best.

Step 1: Select a Family Member to Interview

You can pick anyone you like. It could be your spouse/partner or your child or your mom or dad or guardian. But I want to encourage you to interview someone you talk to less often. If you are fortunate to have a grandparent or older relative still living, those are wonderful people to interview. Maybe you know how your parents met, but ask your grandmother what she was like when she was dating. You might just be surprised by the stories she has to tell you!

Step 2: Give Your Family Member a Call 

That’s right, part of the assignment is to call someone you care about. Now how often do you get asked to do that for class? Tell the person you have been asked to interview them to hear some stories from their past. Tell them you need a good story, something interesting, something worth saving. Give them some time to talk. Prompt them to keep going. Ask for lots of details. What did things look like? What did they wear in those days? Where did the story happen? What was the place like? The person might not remember everything exactly. That’s ok. They don’t have to remember the shirt they had on that specific day, but what might they have been wearing? Ask the person to help you get a feel for the time and place.

Step 3: Tell the Person You Want to Write Their Story

Tell them this is a class project, but also that you want to save this story for the future. Be sure to explain that you will share the story with people in our class. Ask for the person’s permission to write their story.

This does raise IRB issues, and we will be discussing these issues later. But, this is a simple project for a class. So, just make sure the person is giving you permission to use their story. Ask them that directly. If you were doing a full fledged research project, of course you would need to do an IRB protocol, but this is a learning project for class which does meet federal guidelines. We are not putting anyone at risk with this simple class project.

Tell the person that what is really important is saving their story. That’s what matters the most here. Especially if the person is older, their story might be lost if it isn’t written by you now.

Step 4: Get Some Pictures

Ask the person to send you a few pictures of them, both how they look now and how they looked then. The more the better. You should get at least 3, but ask for more. Try for 7 or 8 pictures so you have a few to choose from. You will be putting these in your story.

Step 5: Write a Draft of Your Family Story

Now comes the fun part. Well, actually the talking to the person was the real fun part. But writing can be fun too. So dive in. Tell us this family story. Use all the detail you can.

Step 6: Offer Some Reflection

Once you finish writing your Family Story, re-read it from start to finish. Then write a few paragraphs reflecting on it. This reflection can add some meaningful weight to the story. You can ask your reader later if this reflection works.

Step 7: Add Pictures of the Person to Your Story

Select a few pictures of the person for your story and add them. You don’t have to worry about giving credit for these family photos, but feel free to include captions.

Step 8: Finish with Their Words

Try to finish the story with a direct quote from the person you interviewed. If you didn’t get a good quote, call them again and ask for one!

Step 9: Share Your Draft

I encourage you to share the story with your family member to see what they have to say about it. You can do that now or after you finish this class, but I’m sure they will want to read your story of them.

Step 10: Save This Story for Someone Else in Your Family

Stories are a great way for us to learn from others. In fact, we learn best from stories. So, hopefully this research project has helped you to learn something new and interesting about your family history. I also hope that you will have found a story worth saving, and that someday you can share that story with someone else in your family, maybe one of your children or a nephew or just someone else who matters to you and cares about the person in your story.