How to and (Especially) How Not to Write About Family

Today’s post is by Sharon Harrigan (@harrigan_sharon), whose novel Half is available now.

Writing about the people you are closest to can be one of the most rewarding experiences a writer can have—but also the scariest. This is a big topic, so I will cover it in two parts. First: what to put on the page. And second: how to deal with your subjects’ reactions to what you write about them.

Let’s start, as some of my favorite memoirs do, with a cliffhanger. Here is what you should not do: When your publisher gives you a January 1 deadline for submitting the final manuscript, you should not print out a copy for each of your family member-characters and send those copies all at the same time, which guarantees you will receive their responses right before Christmas.

But who would do that? Such recklessness would be really dumb, right? I know. At least I know now. But I’ll get back to my own experience later—so you can learn from my mistakes. First, let’s talk about best practices when writing about your family. (All quotes are from Writing Hard Stories, edited by Melanie Brooks.)

Don’t worry about what your family will think when you’re writing the first draft.

One way to invite writer’s block is to imagine the people you are writing about looking over your shoulder. “I try to just write alone and worry about the publishing part later,” Joan Wickersham says. “My feeling is you can write whatever you want, and then you think about it again when it’s time to publish.”

Richard Hoffman adds, “Writing and publishing are two different things. Don’t confuse them. As soon as you start thinking, I could never publish that, then the censor is in the room with you crossing stuff out as fast as you can write it. You can’t work that way.”

Examine your motives.

Don’t write out of revenge. If your purpose is to get even or settle a score, consider waiting until you have processed the experience enough to not be angry about it, or at least enough to have some distance and perspective. You may need to write about things that will be hard for your family to read, but avoid being, as Joan Wickersham puts it, “gratuitously nasty.” “I didn’t want [my memoir] to be nasty,” she says, “both for my family, but also because I’ve read memoirs like that—where you feel there’s an axe to grind—and it always makes me back away from the memoir and not really trust the writer.” Readers don’t need to like the narrator of a memoir, but they need to trust her as their guide, or they will close the book.

Also: “You really don’t need to hurt anybody,” says Abigail Thomas. “The person you’re exposing is yourself.” But what if some people in your family behaved badly? You can’t lie and pretend they were model citizens. Thomas’ solution is simple. She says, “People who might be injured simply don’t appear.”

Tell your story only.

If you don’t pretend to be able to tell everyone’s story, readers will trust that you know your material. As Michael Patrick MacDonald says, “I only told stories that are my stories. Of course, they involve other people, and that’s the problem, but I only told parts of their stories if they intersected with my trauma.” Kim Stafford, who writes about his brother’s suicide, says, “There is no way I can tell my brother’s story … Instead, I write my stories of my brother.”

Treat some people with extra caution—for example, children.

All the memoirists I’ve heard talk about this say children are more vulnerable and need to be treated with more sensitivity. For instance, at an AWP panel on this topic, one writer said his rules are to respect the secrets his children would not want repeated, including anything mental-health-related. Another said she gave her children carte blanche to change how they were portrayed, a privilege she didn’t give anyone else, and another said she kept asking for her nineteen-year-old son’s okay, even though she didn’t ask any of her other characters.

Write down your own memories before you ask other people to fact-check you.

Memoir is not about what you remember but why you remember it that way. Your subjects will try to correct your facts, so wait until you have arrived at the emotional truth before that gets buried in the controversies about the literal or physical truth.

Monica Wood says, “I deliberately didn’t ask [my siblings] about family history. I wanted it to be my memory.” Mary Karr, in The Liar’s Club, sometimes stops in the middle of a paragraph to add a parenthetical telling us her sister remembers the scene she just described differently. You might choose to do that, though it is a difficult technique to pull off without sounding gimmicky. Even if you don’t write like Mary Karr (and how many of us can?) it is best to keep your memories distinct from those of others.

Should you give your family control over the work, or ask for permission to publish?

Writers tend to agree on the above guidelines while drafting. There is a lot less consensus about what comes after. How much control should you give your subjects—those family members you have turned into characters? What should you let them see, and when? Will you allow them to change anything?

One question you will have to grapple with is whether to allow some people to say you can’t write about them. Before I started writing my memoir, I asked for my mother’s permission to use the stories she had been telling me about her life, and I would not have proceeded without it. On the other hand, I wrote a Modern Love essay about when my husband and I started dating, and I only told him about it once the New York Times required him to sign a form. I agree with Kyoko Mori that “anyone who marries or goes out with a writer, they should understand that they are signing up for this … I’d love to say to people, don’t worry, I’ll never write about you. But it would just not be true.”

A surprising number of writers (surprising to me) say they don’t show their manuscripts to their subjects at all before their memoir is published. Sue William Silverman, for example, explains, “I didn’t want anybody influencing what I had to say. I didn’t show it to my sister and say, Are you okay with this? If she’s not okay with it, I’m still going to write it … If she disagrees with it, then she gets to write her own book, if she wants.”

Melanie Brooks says, “I’d heard from a number of authors I interviewed that they were intentional about not sharing the finished work with their families before publication because they didn’t want anyone dictating what should or shouldn’t be in there.”

Maureen Woods was an exception. “These people did not ask to be in my story,” she says. “If they were writing a memoir, I would want to see what they wrote before it came out and have the chance to say something about what feels like an invasion of privacy.”

Your family will react.

What kind of reactions will you get from your family—whether they see the memoir before or after it is published? I posed this question to an online group of memoirists and received a wide range of answers. Some told me their families had threatened to sue or cut them out of their wills. One writer said her sister refused to talk to her for a long time, but she thought the rift was caused by jealousy not injury. And sometimes people respond in surprising ways. Instead of wanting you to take them out of your book, they will complain because they are not in the spotlight more. Edwidge Danticat says, “My brothers asked why the book was all about me. I said, Because I’m the one writing it.”

Not all responses from family are negative. Sometimes the process of gathering information brings people closer. That happened with my mother and me. She is finally comfortable talking about herself. She no longer thinks her life is not important enough for people to care about it. She now knows that people are interested in women like her, women who, for much of history, have been invisible, soft-spoken and self-deprecating women eclipsed by loud and powerful men. My mother attended two of my memoir book launches. After the second one, she sat around a table with my brother’s friends and answered questions about how she coped as a twenty-something widow with three small children, after my father’s strange and mysterious death. She talked about how she managed to grow up quickly after her mother kicked her out of the house at age sixteen. She talked about how a working-class girl with few opportunities became interested in art, and how that helped her survive a traumatic childhood and marriage. I am closer to my mother than I have ever been because we have nothing left to hide from each other.

Now back to my cliff-hanger. I was at the post office, about to send off a copy of my manuscript to every family member-character in my memoir. I know I’m anxious because my FitBit shows my heartrate: over 100 beats per minute. It is the beginning of December. What could possibly go wrong? I feel as if I’m about to jump—not off a cliff but off the edge of a swimming pool. I know how to swim but I hate water rushing up my nose. I tell myself I can handle being uncomfortable. I tell myself I am allowed to write whatever I want and that I am sending these copies simply as a courtesy.

Then the week before Christmas, I receive a letter from one of my aunts detailing everything wrong with my story. The list is long. I can’t even handle reading it myself, so I ask my husband to read it to me. I feel like I should be wearing a hazmat suit—it’s that harsh. What’s more, my aunt says she has sent her letter to everyone else in my family.

I immediately call my mother and apologize. She says I didn’t do anything wrong, that she doesn’t agree with my aunt. But I have the terrible feeling that I have done something wrong, and I need to make it right. I watch the film Manchester by the Sea, in which a man accidentally burns down his house and kills his children. I feel like that man.

My brother flies in to spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s with me, and he helps me address my aunt’s grievances, page by page. We revise the manuscript together.

My aunt is finally satisfied with my revision. She doesn’t forgive me, though, and says she can’t forget what I wrote in the first version.

What would I have done differently? What would I advise you to do, based on my experience? Have one trusted reader, preferably someone who knows all the characters in real life, comb through the manuscript first, imagining what others will think. In my case, that person would have been my brother. He is the one who helped me afterwards, but it would have been so much less traumatic if I had asked him to be my first character-reader.

What if I’m not up for any of this?

Maybe you are thinking, This sounds kind of complicated. I’ll just keep my family out of my story. I thought I could do that, too. But “you can’t write a family memoir without writing about people in your family,” Joan Wickersham says. “Your experience is all tangled up in theirs.”

Maybe you are even thinking, Why write my story at all? It sounds like a lot of heartache. Maybe so, but it is also true that once a memory moves from your mind to the page, it can feel like a burden lifted. To quote Joan Wickersham again, “A police sketch artist said that one of the things she liked about her job was that before meeting her, these people had to carry the memory of that face, but once they gave it to her, she hoped they could forget it a little bit.” The same can be true with memoir. Once you write about a memory, you don’t have to carry it around, trying not to lose it, anymore.

The other day someone asked me about when I introduced my then-boyfriend to my seven-year-old son. I couldn’t remember. But then I realized: I don’t have to anymore. The memory is out there in the world, in a Modern Love column, and in my memoir. I no longer have to carry it around, afraid that otherwise it might disappear.

I bristle when people ask if writing my memoir was therapeutic. I am afraid they mean, Was it only therapeutic? I want to say, No, I wasn’t trying to heal, I was trying to make art. But the truth is, you can do both: create something beautiful and arrive at a deeper understanding of yourself.

I won’t lie: Writing memoir can be grueling, both in terms of hard work and emotional fallout. So allow yourself to enjoy the benefits. That’s one of the most important tips I want to share.

Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, check out Sharon Harrigan’s new novel, Half.

Share on:
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments