Monday, 21 December 2015

Writing life stories by Ruth Bonetti

What more precious gift to relatives and future generations than to write a family history or memoir? Do it now, before stories and insights are lost to dementia and coffins.

But first consider: for whom do you write?            
                                                                                    Photo 1890: Ruth's grandfather stands front left.

  • Will you circulate amongst family some copies produced at the local print shop? 
  • Or might your stories resonate with Everyman and Everywoman? 
That challenging option, with good marketing and distribution, can reach more readers.
  • Will you present facts as a historical document, with diligent footnotes and bibliography? 
  • Or through creative nonfiction put flesh on bones, words in mouths, and look under the surface to the motivations that drove actions?                                                           
If so, one writes with relatives peering over the shoulder, while wondering what flak the finished book might draw. They caution: “Change the names, write a novel, and avoid offence.”
Kate Grenville took this path with The Secret River.

My attempts to novelise felt stilted. Why waste my treasure trove of archival letters and diminish a great story? Let the characters speak for themselves. Narrative nonfiction morphed into memoir as I discovered and interpreted stories. Accepting my role as storyteller unlocked the cage to write more freely.
Others might write different books, equally valid.

Dare to share?

Fact checking early drafts might elicit useful information–or invite criticism. Steel yourself for unsolicited advice: “Don't include aspects that dishonour ancestors…”

Memorise a short but gracious mantra:
"Thank you. I hear what you say. I’ll choose appropriate content with care and prayer."
Clamp your mouth on justifications.

Black versus white sheep?

Some families draft ancestors into pens of white and black sheep, with little variegation between. What demons drove the reprobate to that more interesting story? Avoiding all conflict makes for dull reading and robs readers of the opportunities to learn from generational patterns.

Shame on the family!

What family tree doesn’t sprout illegitimate twigs? Recent generations shrug but Great Aunt Flossie concealed scandals with hushed euphemisms for 90 years. She threatens legal action if her family name is besmirched. Living relatives cannot sue on behalf of “defamed” deceased. The defamation twins are libel (written words) and slander (spoken) false or malicious statements that damage someone’s reputation. Avoid pitfalls with nonjudgmental, factual reporting. Australian Society of Authors membership includes legal aid if needed.

If you choose narrative nonfiction, cover yourself with upfront disclaimers:  “This is my interpretation...” and intersperse “I imagine that…” and “perhaps...” throughout. Endnotes can delineate fact from elaboration and acknowledge sources.

What is truth?

Contradictions are inevitable when sifting truths from myths of oral history.
Relatives view my many-faceted Grandfather from varied kaleidoscope angles to mine. This is the paradox of history; the events of World War 1 written by people from Germany, France, England or Australia would differ, even contradict in some details.

Relatives who share letters, documents, information and memories may envisage the book they would write and recoil if your version departs from their preconceptions.

My preferred style is life writing, to look under the surface of dates, events and facts and find the persons beneath. What drove two brothers to flee their native Finland to settle at the far end of the earth? Did they struggle, away from the security of the nest? 

After a decade of research, countless drafts and edits, Burn My Letters: Midnight Sun to Southern Cross I'm exploring publication options. I hope it fulfils the calling of Psalm 102:18.

Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet unborn may praise the LORD. (RSV)

Want to hear when it’s published? Email

Ruth Bonetti co-founded Omega Writers in 1991. She is author/editor of 12 publications through Oxford University Press and her imprint Words and Music. These and her presentations seek to empower those who present through Words and Music.


  1. HI Ruth - your phrase 'death and coffins' definitely resonate with me. I regret not writing down more of the families stories when my two aunts were still alive, now my father has dementia. At least my mum remembers many of the stories, as do I, after many retellings - yet the details can begin to blur over time. Time to write them down.

    1. So true of many families. Do write those stories!

  2. And for me, even more so as I am at the funeral of a cousin's husband. Just managed to edit and post before getting in the car.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Ruth. I love that verse of Scripture - even wrote a song based on it. I think the treasures of the past shine all the brighter when thoughtfully re-positioned in the light of these present days, and the disappointments serve to highlight the blessings. Much grace and wisdom is needed to present them so. Thanks for your wise advice.

    1. Thanks for the affirmation and encouragement. It will be a release to move onto a new writing project where I'm free to be myself, rather than represent a large family. But first I have to see this through to print...

  4. Thanks for sharing that Ruth. I too regret not getting more stories from an elderly aunt who has now passed away. I can also relate to the bit about not being able to please everyone in your family. I think that's held me back from some of the things I would like to write, but in the end it's my story too. Just have to work out how to tell it :) I hope your book finds a publishing home soon. Thanks for sharing :)

  5. Thanks, Nola, I so appreciate your support and that of the group.

  6. Well done Ruth on your memoir writing. "Burn My Letters: Midnight Sun to Southern Cross" sounds an intriguing title and I love the motivation behind it. Your grandfather looks so cute - what a precious picture! All the best in getting your book published. Looking forward to reading it one day.

    1. Thanks, Anusha. The amusing thing is the little lad grandfather became the powerhouse migrant made good "white sheep" and the brother standing behind him the "black" one, in the eyes of some branch of the family. Yet he was a sensitive, creative idealist who described himself in letters as a "pen fighter" and self published books in the language he learned on the voyage out. My research discovers how he came foul of the repressive Russian regime in Finland.