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.