BlogTalk: The Conundrum of Writing About Family 5

My Family, 1958

Deborah Siegal recently posted a provocative article over on SheWrites: Do We Overshare When We Write about Our Kids? It reminded me of a question recently put to my writing club’s author support group: What is it okay to reveal about family members? And do we need their permission?

The conflict surrounding writing and family relationships and privacy is nothing new. Ask ten different authors or publishers, and you’ll probably get ten different answers about how to handle it. Some, like Siegal, get their family members’ consent before the writing goes to print. But that opens the Pandora’s box to family wanting to control what is said about them. Do any of us really get that kind of control? And what about family members, like children, who can’t give their consent? A whole world full of mother writers would instantly lose all their material!

As Siegal herself admits: I want my children to have a sense of privacy, boundaries that I respect, and a sense of distance between what is mine and theirs. Yet I remain compelled to write about them. I simply can’t hold back.

What mother can? That’s like telling a mother she can’t share photos and brag about her kid, or complain about some new behavior that’s driving her crazy. And we all know that when mothers talk (or write) about their children, they’re really talking about themselves. This principle holds true: the writer reveals herself on the page, more than she does her subject.

Many writers compromise by using protective pseudonyms for family members, or disguising features and characteristics. Others say it’s all in the way you write—that it’s important to maintain respect and sensitivity to how what we write can affect those closest to us (even those not written about directly). I agree with this stance, yet also wonder if it’s really possible to achieve (that fact that I breathe embarrasses my teenager).

David Sedaris, in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, says, “Real love amounts to withholding the truth, even when you’re offered the perfect opportunity to hurt someone’s feelings.”

What’s your take? What’s a writer to do?


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5 thoughts on “BlogTalk: The Conundrum of Writing About Family

  • patsy ann taylor

    I agree with David Sedaris for most writing. But there are times when the truth is more important than feelings. The writer must make that decision.

  • Linda Joy Myers

    Good post, Amber–and I LOVE the photo! This of course is an endless debate that every memoir writer has to figure out for him/herself. Sometimes the truth is implied even if we aren’t direct, and sometimes we change the essence of our story if we don’t write the “truth.” That brings us to asking “what is truth. If we don’t give details, are we telling our truth.”
    And then we wonder, is it my inner critic telling me that I shouldn’t write, or will I actually harm someone, and what will the cost be. These are indeed ethical questions. If we accuse someone of something that harms their reputation, then we’re in a legal dilemma.
    In my memoir, I used language that left details somewhat murky, and avoided putting in some material that was controversial. The family got upset anyway. So it’s up to us and what we can live with.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Linda Joy, you make some very good points. And as you say, even when we try to say things in a way that does not point fingers, our words may be misinterpreted. It’s all very complicated and confusing at times. I think a writer must examine her purposes for revealing what she does; if there’s a hint of anger or “revenge” in writing something negative about someone else—even if true—perhaps it’s best left out. If, on the other hand, she’s sincerely trying to convey how a particular person or event was significant to her life, as well as how this has been part of her growing/learning process—if the information or passage has an important reason for being included—that truth needs to find a way to be communicated.

  • Barbara Toboni

    Great subject, Amber. I feel the as Patsy commented above, the writer must make the decision. In the end it is the writer who is responsible for what he writes. And if we take the time to think about it from our heart of hearts things will usually work out.