WHEN YOU SET OFF TO WRITE ABOUT YOUR LIFE, you will end up, at some point, wonder how much to include about your family members. Especially if you’re revealing family secrets, which memoirs tend to do. Even when journaling about family, you may worry that family members will some day read your journals, and then what?
Do you need to worry about how you represent Aunt Maude, even though she’s passed away? What if you are revealing long-held family secrets, such as violence, mental illness, and/or abuse? Will family members be offended by what you write? Will they stop speaking to you — or worse, sue you? These are valid concerns, over which there have been much debate, and any number of schools of thought.
In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Ann Lamott writes, “Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point to you, while a chilling voice thundered, ‘We *told* you not to tell.’ But that was then. Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on.”
Natalie Goldberg, in Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, agrees. “The things that make you a functional citizen in society — manners, discretion, cordiality — don’t necessarily make you a good writer. Writing needs raw truth, wants your suffering and darkness on the table, revels in a cutting mind that takes no prisoners…”
For these memoirists, writing the truth as they see it is more important than any fallout that may occur. Not everyone feels this way.
In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr says that she handles the question of family in three parts: first, she gives them advance notice that she’s writing about them; secondly, she keeps her pages private until the book’s done; lastly, she shares what she’s written with the person in question and gives him or her an opportunity for feedback prior to publishing. As she herself notes, however, “It’s not my nature to write at any length about people I don’t like … it’s mostly love that drives me to the page.” Perhaps family members would respond differently if she were revealing secrets they’d rather keep hidden.
Philip Lopate changed the names of his siblings in his essays. (Not that this helped, as they could recognize themselves in his writing and became angered anyway.)
Patricia Hampl, in I Could Tell You Stories, says, “I’ve lost quite a few people along the way. And not to death. I lose them to writing. The one who accused me of appropriating her life, the one who said he was appalled, the poet miffed by my description of his shoes, the dear elderly priest who said he thought I understood the meaning of a private conversation, this one, that one. Gone. Gone.”
In the end, each writer must handle the decision in his or her own way.Write your full story — all of it — truthfully and as raw as you are able. Click To Tweet
When I wrote my memoir, Not the Mother I Remember, I made the decision to write as truthfully as possible. I would not change names of major characters or sugarcoat my experiences of family life. Nor would I worry about how family might respond. Because I had waited until my mother passed away before writing about her, and two of my brothers who were included in the memoir had also passed on, you might not think it would matter. But it did. I have living relatives who could be affected by my words. In the end, I ended up cutting or revising some passages so as not to cause those relatives unnecessary pain.
The word “necessary” became the decision-maker for my memoir. If including a behavior or event was critical to my story, then I kept it, no matter the potential fallout. If, after consideration, I deemed a behavior, character, or event was tangential to my story, I often cut it altogether. If what I was writing about was not crucial, but still important to my story in some way, then I revised it to avoid pointing the finger at particular individuals. I found that including my experience of an event and its affect on me was more important than the “who done it.”
Because I took their feelings into consideration, I did not feel it necessary to show my memoir to my family until after it was published — even though I still had some concerns over how it would be received. I’m happy to say that feedback from my family was overwhelmingly positive, even when I included difficult scenes or portrayed people and relationships as flawed.
BUT … I need to point out that the cutting and revising came AFTER the writing. I believe it’s important, for many reasons, to write your full story — all of it — as fully and truthfully and as raw as you are able. Memoir, as Goldberg says, “needs raw truth.”
It takes courage to write the truth — even if only for yourself. So, if you are struggling with questions about what is “right” or “ethical” or “safe” to write, here are my recommendations:
- Write it all — the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. Get it all down on paper. Important themes and issues will arise in the writing that could be missed entirely if you write cautiously. More importantly, writing cautiously leads to bad writing. You must be willing to wrestle with your darkest, deepest demons to write memoir.
- Keep your writing in a safe place and don’t talk about it with family. Even if, as part of your research, you interview family members to get their perspectives, you don’t need to tell them what or how you are writing about these events. Only that you are interested in how they remember what happened.
- After you have completed your first draft, take a step back and look at what you’ve written from the eye of an outsider. Is what you’ve written necessary to include in your story? Is your tone at all vengeful or have you written with the intention of hurting anyone? If you have any doubts, try writing a scene from another character’s point of view. What might change?
- Edit based on what is necessary to include in order to tell the truth of your story.
Finally, the decision to show your work to your family before or after publishing is entirely yours. Only you know the risks and rewards of your choices and what you are willing to live with. Be true to yourself and, I believe, all will be well.