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Family History: Theme and the Act of Writing

(Today we welcome, Mariann Regan to The Armchair Genealogist. Mariann is here to help us understand theme and how it plays an important role in our family history writing.) 


The theme of your family history is your own choice. There are no “right” or “wrong” themes. The facts you’ve researched don’t dictate any particular theme. You can create your own theme. It is your lens through which to view and unify all your chosen parts of your family history.

For Into The Briar Patch, my family history, I constructed this theme:

  • My Southern ancestors’ experience of being slaveholders has affected the world view of our family down through the generations.

Here are two different themes I could also have formulated:

  • The women among my ancestors strove to resist pressure from the men and rival the men in bravado.
  • My ancestors’ strong belief in hard work and education often brought them sorrow.

Either of these three themes, and many others, could bring together the facts (places, dates, marriages, births, deaths, newspaper accounts) of my family’s history by using my own perspective of what is most important about their history. A theme can shape mere facts into a writer’s account that fascinates and compels.

Don’t let your theme cramp your writing, though. You chose it, and you can modify it.  As you write, you may find you would like to expand your theme here, contract it there, or even revise it wholesale. That’s fine. I revised mine several times.

Getting in the Zone

Suppose this is your family history theme:

  • The parents among my ancestors taught their children how to be resilient through life’s challenges.

You’ve made an outline of parent-child pairings in your family tree. Some relationships interest you more than others. Your favorite family legend is about your grandmother’s wise words to her son, your father, when he came down with scarlet fever in childhood.

You don’t have a complete plan for a book. So how can you possibly start to write?

Here’s how: Ignore your outline. Structure later. Begin with that favorite legend.

Step mentally into the world of your grandmother and father, into those times when she was supporting that sick child. Leave other thoughts behind. Imagine you are stepping into a lake, immersing yourself in this family episode. You are with your ancestors, watching them and listening. You begin to swim in the feelings and words that come to your mind. Your strokes become phrases, tapped out on your keyboard. No one is observing you.

LET yourself write, stroke by stroke. Whatever words arise in your mind, whatever you mutter to yourself—write it all down. Don’t stop to review or revise your writing (that’s for another day), just keep going. Envision your grandmother’s words, her gestures, and your father’s responses. You may have been told something about their conversations. Extend what you know into a whole dialogue of what they “may have said,” if you wish. Inhabit the periphery of the scene—other relatives, the room, the house, the doctor’s predictions, whatever matters to you. Thought is free.

From within your own mind, superego taunts may assault your writing space:

·         What time is it? Who needs me?
·         Is this a run-on sentence?
·         I’m not really meant to be a writer.
·         I have to stop now until I get organized.
·         I’m too much carried away by my emotions.
·         Shouldn’t I be doing better things with my time?

These common self-critical voices aren’t worth your attention. So how can you silence them and continue your vital task—the writing itself?

Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird (Random House: 1994), offers this classic passage:

  • Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail, drop it in the jar. And so on. Drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head. Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away. . . . Then imagine that there is a volume-control button on the bottle. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guilt mongering voices. Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass, trying to get to you. Leave it down, and get back to your sh**ty first draft. (27)

Of course, Lamott simply means that writers typically disparage their own first drafts. That’s part of the process. But when you write “in the moment,” keeping the nagging voices at bay, your writing will be true.

When you get tired, stop. Put your writing aside. Don’t start revising or second-guessing. Reward yourself with a cup of tea or a margarita.

Theme and Structure

Proceed through several sessions of this in-the-moment writing, perhaps one or even two sessions per day. After a few good days, several pages of text will have blossomed from your keyboard. Now you can step back and ask, “How do I want to structure my book?” Structure, like theme, is your own choice.

For example, let’s try out your sample theme with both (1) a chronological structure and (2) a topical structure. You’d choose your preference. Here is the theme again:

  • The parents among my ancestors taught their children how to be resilient through life’s challenges.

(1) You can modify your theme for a chronological structure:

  • Through the generations, our family’s parents have become less severe and more positive in teaching children to be resilient through life’s challenges.

This version suggests a story, told chronologically from earliest to latest generation, with a plot of constantly improving parental advice.

(2) You can also modify your sample theme for a topical structure:

  • Our family’s parents have taught their children how to be resilient to life’s challenges, but historical forces have often overpowered their teaching.

This version suggests a topical structure. Each chapter would feature a different variation of the topic, a battle between historical forces and parental teaching. This structure does not need to be in chronological order. For example, you might order the chapters from weaker to stronger historical forces, to generate suspense.


Both structures have good potential momentum—movement—so that the reader is always wondering, “What’s next?”

And that’s a match.  Because a writer in-the-moment is always asking the same free and spirited question: “What’s next?” 

Mariann S. Regan
Mariann Sanders Regan is Professor Emerita of English at Fairfield University in Connecticut. She grew up in North Carolina and has many relatives in South Carolina. She has a BA from Duke, a PhD from Yale, and publications that include articles, stories, literary scholarship (Cornell University Press), and a novel. Her recent family memoir Into The Briar Patch explores the effects upon her South Carolina ancestors of owning slaves, given that slavery is an evil institution. She and her husband, who have two children, live in Connecticut. Her book blog is Reviews of the memoir are at