How to Write About Family: Honoring Self and Other in Memoir

Annette Gendler

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.

Annette Gendler and 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?

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Shirley Showalter


  1. Kathleen Pooler on November 5, 2012 at 11:20 am

    Dear Annette and Shirley,
    This is a fabulous post! It hits right at the heart of a memoirist’s main concern-how will my words affect the people in my life who are an important part of my story? Each point resonates but my favorite was #1 “Be honest, be kind and write from your point of view”. This is a must-read for anyone tackling a memoir and I will share it all over.
    Thank you both very much!

    • Annette Gendler on November 5, 2012 at 11:30 am

      Kathleen – glad to hear my post resonates with you, and thanks for sharing!

    • shirleyhs on November 5, 2012 at 6:51 pm

      Thanks so much, Kathy. I love the way you look out for posts that help your great and growing community of memoir writers. Much appreciated.

    • Elaine Pinkerton on November 15, 2012 at 3:31 pm


      I too struggled with writing about my family! In fact, my memoir is partly compiled of my diary entries from my youth, and I wasn’t always nice. As an adoptee, who did struggle with my adoption, I was worried that my raw emotions about my parents would hurt them in the long run.

      Turns out, my honesty (as you mention) was the most powerful tool needed to heal my emotional wounds.

      It’s always nice to know that other authors are also struggling with these concerns. Memoir writing is not easy, that’s for certain.

      With that said, thank you for the insightful post, Annette.I have this bookmarked for future wisdom when I need help.

  2. Tina Barbour on November 5, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    This post was very helpful to me. I have wondered about how to approach my family members about the memoir I’m writing. I plan to make use of the points you make in this post. Thank you for sharing!

    • shirleyhs on November 5, 2012 at 6:54 pm

      So glad you have gained confidence to approach people in your life. May they benefit, also, from your honesty and courage.

  3. Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living on November 5, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Hi Annette,

    I’ve published a travel memoir about uprooting our family from Orange County, California to live in a hut in Belize, Central America with our teenage sons. I did change the names of my children, as they requested it. My one issue is with my mother-in-law, who’s an avid reader, and who came to visit us in Belize. She was more than a real “pain” and I have not shown her my memoir. I like your advice on, “How people react is usually indicative of your relationship with them.” Perhaps I should give her the book for Christmas and see how she reacts. Anyway, there is obviously a much more complex relationship between my husband and his mother which brought out the worst in her when she came to a third world country and lived with us on an island for two weeks, together with her sister. It’s quite funny actually.
    Thanks Shirley for inviting Annette to guest post.

    • Annette Gendler on November 5, 2012 at 1:37 pm

      Sonia, since you already published the book, it’s probably better that your mother-in-law get it from you rather than come across it by happenstance, especially when she’s in it. Then you’d be adding the issue of slighting her.

    • shirleyhs on November 5, 2012 at 6:59 pm

      I agree with Annette about being honest and open with your mother-in-law. You may be surprised at her response. And you don’t want to be in the position of looking like you are hiding from her your now-public view of her.

    • Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living on November 6, 2012 at 9:20 am

      Thanks Annette and Shirley. I shall give her a copy myself.

  4. Carol Bodensteiner on November 5, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    This is a terrific post, Annette. When I wrote my childhood memoir, Growing Up Country, I used my mom as to confirm facts about everything from the day we did the laundry to whether we kids really did start carrying milk when we were 10. I even asked her to do some church-related research for one chapter. She loved being my research assistant.

    One thing you don’t address is how much you recommend changing names and identifying characteristics of people. I agonized over this and eventually went with real names on almost everyone. But boy did I have nightmares before the book was published! What’s your thought on this?

    • Annette Gendler on November 5, 2012 at 11:12 pm

      Carol, thanks for your thoughtful response. I love how you involved your mom in the research for your memoir. There couldn’t be a better way to engage her than by giving her an actual job to do. I personally don’t believe in changing names as there is so much to a name, and whenever I did do it I was always scrambling for a name that fit as well as the real name. I only do change names if the person requests it, or if it’s such a minor character that revealing the real name isn’t worth the possibly agony. Same goes for characteristics; people tend to see through that disguise, and then might get upset about not being “real.”

  5. shirleyhs on November 5, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    Carol, do you think you made the right decision? I’d love to hear what your conversations have been like with the people in your book after you published it.

  6. William Kendall on November 5, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    Excellent post, Annette.

    It’s not the field I would write in, though I notice, each time I go through my own manuscript, that a minor character I used only in my first chapter reminded me a lot of my late brother, who passed away of cancer some years ago.

    • Annette Gendler on November 5, 2012 at 11:15 pm

      Thanks, William, for stopping by. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how often real people pop up in fiction. Isaac Bashevis Singer once said that even though he wrote fiction, he never made anyone up. All characters were made of people he’d met, or heard about, or read about. You might, one day, find yourself actually writing about your brother. Who knows?

    • shirleyhs on November 6, 2012 at 9:54 am

      Hi William, thanks for joining the conversation. I wonder what difference it makes whether we are conscious or not about modeling a character on someone we know or only recognize the relationship in hindsight. In memoir, of course, we are aware. But I still think we can “see” things about our characters in real life we didn’t realize before we tried to write about them.

  7. Diane Carlisle on November 6, 2012 at 7:27 am

    I so agree! The minute someone finds out you’re writing a book (fiction or non-fiction), the first question or statement is usually centered around whether or not they are in the book.

    Silly non-writers. 🙂

    • Annette Gendler on November 6, 2012 at 8:58 am

      Diane, well, we all want to be important, right?

  8. shirleyhs on November 6, 2012 at 9:58 am


  9. Linda Gartz on November 6, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    Hello Shirley and Annette,
    I’ve been a little awol for a while but found this post thoughtful and enlightening. Just about everybody I’m writing about is dead. My biography/memoir is about my parents’ relationship and our growing up in a sprawling rooming house on Chicago’s west side, the riots that tore apart our neighborhood, and my parents inability/refusal to give up on each other or the riot-ravaged community. My older brother and I have strong disagreements about certain aspects of family relationships, but I told him he could write his own memoir. I will change some names of people who lived in our buildings (whom I haven’t seen in decades) because I wouldn’t want anyone to identify them. They may recognize themselves (if they ever even read the book), but no one else would. I still struggle with how to portray the parents I loved, but now see the flaws of each, especially through their letters and diaries, and how aspects of their upbringing arose to undermine their once great love!

    • Annette Gendler on November 6, 2012 at 10:41 pm

      Linda, I feel honored that this post prompted you to come out of your awol status. It sounds like you have a big project on your hands, but your approach seems very sound. Changing names of minor characters is often useful because it isn’t worth stirring up strife for a character that’s not that crucial to the story. Learning to see people close to you, like parents, as fully rounded characters beyond the role they play in our lives is one of the great challenges in writing memoir, but I think it is ultimately very rewarding because, if we do manage to see them as the humans they were, we arrive at a better understanding of our own lives.

  10. […] week on this blog Annette Gendler offered her prescription for how to write about family, which might be one of the most difficult challenges a memoir writer […]

  11. April Yamasaki on November 26, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    Hi Annette and Shirley – this is such a helpful post. In most of my writing I haven’t named names since the stories I’ve told about others have been quite brief and I’ve been able simply to say a friend or use some other fairly anonymous description, but as I think about longer pieces where that might not be possible/preferable, this post is very useful. Thanks!

  12. shirleyhs on November 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Thanks, April. It’s sometimes hard to know how to make this choice. Is it important to name people or can you just use generic terms? With family members, one almost has to name them. They are such major players in our lives.

    Some people use pseudonyms, which I can’t quite see. I am in the process of contacting some of the friends from long ago to see if I can gain permission to use their names. Wish me luck.

    As I do for you as you make your own decisions.

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