Ten Thoughts on Writing about Family Members

The First Five

  1. Follow your own ethical principles. Think hard and cleave to what it right for you.
  2. If you are deeply uncomfortable writing about family members at all, follow your gut. Don’t do it. Here are some other options:
  3. Some writers wait to publish material about their families until their parents are dead.
  4. Some writers give their family members veto power on what they write.
  5. Some writers with family stories to tell fictionalize. Others use pen names.

The Second Five

  1. Many people feel a need to write about family troubles—to sort them out for themselves, and because they feel their family’s story may help others. Many memoirs arise from this impulse. As Eudora Welty said, “Trouble is the backbone of literature.” If you feel called to write directly about your life, in order to say something about LIFE, and this will inevitably include stories of your family members, and you don’t want to hurt them: Write the truth with love. This is the best principle I know.
  2. If you have to write a piece or a book that shows a family member in a negative light, write with understanding. Write about the whole person—all his or her facets. Write about where she came from, what made him the person he became. Balance the dark material with lighter material. Most people try at times to be kind, however self-serving or clumsy they might be. Or a funny side or a practical helpfulness co-exists with a streak of meanness.       Make an effort to show your problematic family members in all their complexity, with their strengths as well as their human flaws.
  3. You can’t predict how family members will respond to your writing. Some family members you expect to become enraged may actually appreciate having their perspectives acknowledged.       Furthermore, family members often respond negatively to aspects of the writing the writer didn’t anticipate, so the only thing to do is to go ahead and write. You can’t control others’ responses. Often family members may be uncomfortable at first, but later come to terms with the work and may actually become the writer’s best promoters. Vivian Gornick’s mother, who is shown as quite depressed in Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, ended up going to book-talks with her daughter and signing the books!
  4. Sometimes it is important to keep in mind that, though family members might be uncomfortable, hurt or indignant, in response to your writing, they will probably get over it. Your story is important and will help many others outside the family. A small family sacrifice may be necessary for a greater good. It is true that a few family members will never forgive the writer. This is sad, and perhaps was inevitable.       (If you check in with your principles before publication, this outcome may be prepared for or avoided.) Here is Anne Lamott, with her funny and profound way of putting things: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
  5. Everyone has a right to his or her story. You have a right to yours, and the members of your family may write their own stories. Everyone grows up, really, in his or her own world, and has his/her own version of the truth. As truths multiply, our sense of the world deepens.

We write—and read—to offer and receive companionship and solace. Too many truths about families are hidden. Writing the truth about life is a generous act.