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.”
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.”