Today’s post comes to you from Annette Gendler, a nonfiction writer who teaches memoir and blogs about memoir. Annette has published many personal essays and is seeking a publisher for her book-length memoir about forbidden love between a German and a Jew, a love which succeeded despite great odds. She offers her advice on how to write about family.
How to Write about Family
By Annette Gendler
The number one issue most of my memoir students worry about is writing about family members and friends. How will parents react to a story about a dead sibling? How will a mother react to a story about a grandmother? And how will a father react to a story about his alcoholic wife? Over six years of teaching memoir writing at StoryStudio Chicago, I have come up with a few tips on how to approach the thorny issue of writing about those close to us:
Be honest, be kind, and write from your point of view. Remember that everyone has his or her version of a story. You can only write your own. In The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr even addresses this in the text by saying about her sister, “Were Lecia writing this memoir, I would appear in one of only three guises: sobbing hysterically, wetting my pants in a deliberately inconvenient way, or biting somebody, usually her, with no provocation.”
Write what you want to write. It will take many drafts to arrive at what you want to say, and thus worrying about the fallout is premature. Your mom’s reaction might be irrelevant because she might not even be in the final draft. Which leads me to:
Realize that you can never predict how someone will react. Case in point: When I sent a memoir piece I’d won a prize for to my family, my mom was upset that she wasn’t in it. I explained that the piece was about mortality and, unlike my grandmother and my father, she’s still alive, but to no avail. She was still upset. People can get be miffed even when you don’t say anything at all about them.
Remember that most people love reading about themselves. Most of the time reactions to your writing won’t be negative. If you’re honest and not judgmental, chances are people will appreciate your writing about a shared experience. My siblings loved that very same piece my mom got upset about because they felt I had done justice to our grandmother.
Involve family and friends. Mention what you are writing once you are sure you are actually going forward so that they are not blindsided. Ask them about what they remember, or if they are willing to share any materials. Those around you can be wonderful fact checkers. You might not remember the exact model Oldsmobile your grandmother drove in the ‘60s, but your dad might.
Make sure you’re 100% comfortable with what you wrote. This obviously applies to all aspects of writing, but if you’re writing a personal account, it applies even more. You never know what reactions your writing will elicit, be it from family members, friends, or the general public, so you have to make sure you are behind every word. If you feel just a tiny bit queasy about a passage, take it out. That queasiness is a sure sign that something isn’t quite right. You don’t want that to come back to haunt you.
Share your writing with those who are in the story (at least the main characters). You want to make sure they are behind you. Sharing gets their buy-in. Also, this is simply due diligence. Any bigger publisher will ask for a waiver from anyone prominently featured in your piece.
Share only your final draft. It’s not worth possibly upsetting someone with something that you’re not sure you will actually use. Similarly, it’s not good to share something that isn’t final yet when you might edit out something your reader really liked.
Offer to make changes. Be open to editing if a family member or friend feels strongly about something. Make it clear that you’re not about to change the main trajectory of your story, but if your daughter is uncomfortable with you sharing when she first got her period, ask yourself if it’s really that crucial to the story. Human relationships are, in my opinion, always more important than words.
Changing names or fictionalizing isn’t necessarily the solution. People see through that. Susan Cheever, daughter of novelist John Cheever, related in an interview published in the Summer 2005 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, that fiction can be just as hurtful as nonfiction: “My father wrote the story called “The Hartleys” in which a little girl-who’s obviously me-goes on a family ski trip-which is in every detail the ski trip we took. The little girl gets killed in the ski tow. That, for me, was far more traumatic than if he’d written a nonfiction piece about that ski trip in which he talked about his fears for the little girl. To me, the fiction is much more dangerous, much more painful for the people who it may be based on, than nonfiction. In nonfiction, at least the writer has some obligation to tell what really happened.”
How people react is usually indicative of your relationship with them. I have found this insight from Jacki Lyden, author of the memoir Daughter of the Queen of Sheba , to be eerily true. Her sister didn’t speak to her after she published her memoir about their mother, but, Lyden said at a NonfictioNow Conference, their relationship had always been rocky. On the other hand, if you have a solid relationship with someone, chances are it will survive your writing, and it might even deepen.
I can’t promise that if you mind all this, writing about family will be without difficulty, for writing about real people is always a mine field. You can never predict where a mine will go off, nor can you know the sincere satisfaction that comes with paying homage to those near and dear to you until you actually do it. But you can at least make sure to follow the best process possible.
What are your own concerns about family in your memoir? Do you agree or disagree with Annette? When you read a memoir, do you ever become uncomfortable about the way family members are treated? How does discomfort affect your trust in the author’s voice?