Not every memoir writer worries about being on the outs with their family when they write a memoir, but it is something I hear countless writers discussing, and it often casts a shadow on their forward progress. They worry about how much to reveal, and how stories that perhaps are new to family—whether they’re secrets or private stories, or inner worlds that were never shared before—will affect family and friends. In the process of writing a memoir, new insights, memories, and details are revealed that might be unknown to other people—but they also might be issues that the writer wasn’t aware of which become clearer during the writing process.
If you feel stuck, first you need to diagnose your problem. What is it that you are afraid to share? Why—what are you afraid will happen? It’s useful to journal about your fears and worries, to get these bees buzzing in your head out into the light of day where you can objectively read and assess them.
Perhaps some of your fears are realistic. Memoir writers reveal such things as sexual abuse, abortions, arrests, relationships, babies born out of wedlock, emotional and physical abuse, alcoholism and drug abuse to name a few. The more “confessional” the memoir, the more that writers may flinch when they imagine the family reading it. If this happens consistently, the memoir project comes to a halt.
There seems to be a continuum about people’s attitudes when it comes to judgment about what is revealed in a memoir—from “Oh, what the heck—I don’t care what people think,” to “As long as my family is alive, I can’t write a memoir.” And there are a lot of people in the middle who say, “I can’t wait for everyone to die to write my book, but I’m just not sure how much to reveal.”
Recently, I talked about these issues with Laura Davis, author of The Courage to Heal, at the National Association of Memoir Writers Roundtable discussion “The Choices we Make—Writing about Others.”
You can listen to our discussion at the National Association of Memoir Writers Website, free Roundtable Discussions, under Writing Resources.
We explored the ethical, practical and emotional issues memoir writers face when we write about real people in our lives, all of whom are bound to have strong feelings about the way they are depicted on the page. There are realistic questions to ask yourself, and choices that you have to make as you proceed with your memoir. But the main thing is to keep writing! Your first draft will not be read by anyone–if you don’t share it with them. You have a right to keep things private in your memoir–and it’s still true. Leaving things out does not make your memoir false.
I’ve written about issues of family, truth and privacy in my book The Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story.
Tips to keep your memoir—and you—safe:
Don’t tell your family all about your memoir. Just write for a while and see what needs to come out.
- Don’t share your memoir with family and friends until you’ve completed it and are sure what you want to reveal and how. This takes time.
- Create a “safe, sacred space” where your writing can unfold. Protect your emotional self.
- Realize that when you write about others, you are putting a real person into your book. Alive or dead, there are ethical issues to consider when it comes to publication. Do your research when you get to your final drafts about your rights and theirs.
- Write your first draft as a healing draft. Get out what you need to say. Make it bold and real. Then stand back and think about how you want to revise it for publication.
I dislike your choice of picture…I’ve had enough of that kind of overt and covert hostility and violence directed at me BEFORE a memoir was written ABOUT me and family and since it’s publication and subsequent pulled from publication…I MAY want to resort to the action that picture shows…but..VIOLENCE doesn’t fix anything.
while your article, here, does point out some very very important points to consider, it doesn’t address the fact that some people WANT to exploit family members for fame and fortune and are motivated by anger and hatred
….something to think about.
Thanks for your comment. Yes, I’ve heard of people who do want to stir up family with their memoir, and others who are not ethical toward others as they write. If they go over the line, then there are legal ways to intervene. Most of the memoir writers I deal with are almost too concerned about what the family will think–not because they don’t care, but they do want to be ethical and caring, but it stops them from writing even their first draft, which no one will see unless they show it to them. I think of the first draft as the “the healing draft” and it can be full of things that one would never want anyone else to read. But writing it clears up some of the emotional tangles sometimes, so the person has a clearer head to write a more objective version of the story, taking into account that real people are “characters” in the book. I’m sorry that someone’s story was wounding to your and your family.
I just started writing my coming of age memoir about living with rejection and my emotionally abusive mother a few weeks ago. And, I, too, was torn about just how much I should include in my memoir; that is, until I read this blog post. Your advice, “Write your first draft as a healing draft. Get out what you need to say. Make it bold and real,” really helped me. Now, I feel free to write it as it comes to me without worrying about how it comes across. I also like the advice about not talking about the first draft with family and friends. I think most people that write memoirs about abuse are writing to heal from the pain and not to “exploit” family members. Thank you for your timely post.
Thank you LaTanya, I’m glad that the suggestions are working for you. It’s important to feel free to write, to get out that first draft before thinking about anything else. If you keep your writing process and inner insights to yourself for a while, it gives you a chance to hear your own thoughts and to figure out what you need to say. Publishing decisions come after and during the revision process. Best of luck with your memoir.
Something else to consider:
If your “memoir” contains slander and/or libel – be prepared to suffer the consequences of your actions.
I am the sister of Gert McQueen, and we were both mentioned in a book that was first touted as a “truthful autobiography” then when the lies that were in the book were brought out and refuted on my blog, the author (sadly our younger sister) changed her tune and said it was her “memoir” – trying to give herself the out that her memory was faulty.
Which was just another outrageous lie.
My blog – http://ruthsippelpace.wordpress.com/ – contains actual city court documents, handwritten letters from my younger sister that proved what she wrote in her “memoir” was libelous.
Those documents were sent to the publisher and the book was pulled from publication and will never be reprinted.
Also – don’t publish any photos unless you have written permission from ALL persons in the photo. Just because you “own” a copy of a family group photo – it is not necessarily “yours.” My picture was plastered on the back of my sister’s “memoir” without my permission. And the publisher took that in consideration, along with the court documents and hence killed the book.
My sister wasted 30 years of her life, writing a trashy “expose” as a vehicle to get back at anyone in her life she was angry at – and I was her biggest target.
The consequences she has suffered is a wasted life, her reputation in the adoption reform field is trashed, members of both her adoptive and birth family want nothing to do with her.
All she ever wanted from the age of 16 was to be with her birth family. She was reunited with us when she was 18, and now that she is 57 – she does not have us – due to her own actions and her “memoir.”
I’m sorry your family suffered from another person’s false memoir–which is a whole category of discussion in itself. It’s understood by the writing community that a fake memoir is not okay and is a bad thing to do all around. The audience I’m trying to help are those who are writing as best they can their authentic truths, trying as best they can to be ethical and yet honest, and who are disturbed by worries about what the family will say and how they will react.
I’m trying to help those who are not trying to hurt anyone, but who are working hard to find their voice and permission to write. I wish you and your family luck in healing what was done to you. Yes, luckily there are laws to protect families from libel and abuse, thank goodness.
Linda, you such an advocate for writers and this post clearly reflects that. It’s so important to give permission to people NOT to have to share everything and to write their truths. Thank you and I can’t wait to hear the recording of your and Laura’s discussion since I wasn’t able to make it yesterday.
Thank you Brooke. It seems we have gone from extreme privacy to perhaps over-sharing, to some kind of middle stance about choosing carefully what will be publicly viewed. We have to live with those choices for a long time.
I have experienced this first hand as a writer of memoir. I once entered an social media fiction contest in which two of my family members recognized themselves in the story–I won the first round of the contest–but was removed very quickly after that because the family members threatened to sue the company involved. Very frustrating.
I’m sorry that happened to you, but if it was fiction, was it very clear who the people were anyway? Of course, fiction writer have similar concerns as memoir writers if the characters can be identified by others and are seen in a “bad light.” Some families will go to any lengths to protect themselves, and sometimes it’s more a psychological reaction and for others there may be professional reasons. I hope you enter other contests and disguise your characters well in your fiction!
Although I have not written a memoir yet, I did write a book about my mother, and by extension, my family. I have experienced some push back from a couple of family members. However, of those who have taken exception to my exposing of our family skeletons in our collective closet, mostly have decided to discuss it with others and not me directly. But I heard about some of it second hand.
Yes, families have their different points of view on the truth of things–which is normal. And all families have their secrets/privacy issues. People do have a right to privacy, so this can be handled even in a memoir by making the “characters” not completely identifiable to others. Of course, in small communities and families, everyone knows who everyone is. Nothing like someone writing a memoir to stir up controversy. It happened to me with my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, even though I left out of the first edition various dark truths about one of my relatives in particular. Due to either guilt or denial, the rest of the extended family ended up on his side. I lost connection with that family forever, so in my second edition, I added the stories that I’d left out. By then, the perpetrator at least, had died. Complicated, isn’t it?
Sometimes there’s more getting in the way than just the fear that family members will be angry. In writing memoir, I worry that I’ll hurt somebody’s feelings. I also feel reluctant sometimes to put my most intimate feelings out there where family members (or friends) will eventually read them. Interestingly, I have less of a problem with total strangers reading my intimate thoughts than I do with close relatives. Explain that one!
Yes, the worry about hurting people’s feeling is very strong in many if not most memoir writers I’ve talked with over the years. And it’s so true that writing a memoir is like taking off all your clothes in front of people! We take risks when we write memoir–as we have to stand behind what we present as true. For strangers, well they’ll never meet us most likely, so it’s easier! Thank you for your thoughts on this.
I just finished your memoir “Don’t Call Me Mother.”
My heart was engaged with you throughout your journey and words fail to describe what I’m feeling at the moment.
Thank you for sharing your story with us.
I am indeed mired in the mushy middle of my own memoir at present.
My biggest fear is that my story won’t be interesting/engaging enough for people to invest their valuable time into reading it. After all, I know my story so well that it almost feels “ho hum.”
So glad I found your website…hoping your posts will help me push through to the finish!
Dear Jess, Thank you so much for taking the time to send me a note! I’m glad my story touched you–that is always a great thing for an author to hear. Yes, that muddy middle can be such a challenge, but you get through it scene by scene. We all feel the way you do about our story after writing for a long time, but I’m sure it’s unique, and you have to keep the faith and keep going until the end, then revise and edit, and get peer readers to help you with the questions you have, or an outside reader.
I “owe” the blog a new post and will be doing one soon!
Thank you again,
I wrote and self-published a family and childhood memoir, Tales from Tripoli, after my parents had been dead many years. My older sister and younger brother hate the book, while my younger sister likes it. My other siblings’ reactions have hurt and puzzled me, and I’ve long thought there are certain childhood issues (like corporal punishment) that they can’t handle, but I’ve come to realize that the problem could be bigger than that: they don’t remember their childhoods well, while my younger sister seems to remember hers more clearly. As we are all aging and having some memory issues, I wonder if it disturbs them to read about a time they can’t or don’t want to recall.
Thank you for writing such a helpful article. I would like to know what resources you recommend when you say, “Do your research when you get to your final drafts about your rights and theirs.”
I have a blog that features some of my experiences as the widow of an alcoholic. While I am writing strictly about the grieving process and my personal experiences, my husband’s family is outraged that I’m discussing it at all.
I’d appreciate your insight. Many thanks.