Writing about family can be extremely rewarding and can take you on an intimate trip of self-discovery. Family is inextricably linked to our sense of self and the meaning of home. Writing about family is deeply personal, and a memoir can bring your family closer. However, it can also cause hard feelings, endangering relationships that as we mature often become ever more important.
Here are some tips to help you navigate the important family stories you want to tell.
What Story are You Telling?
First you need to decide what story you want to write. Is it a travel memoir? A personal or political one? A confessional? Or maybe you are writing about someone else. Ask yourself, what is the ultimate point you want to get across? What is the takeaway for your readers?
For example, when my own father neared eighty, he decided to write a memoir honoring his deceased mother. He created a family timeline of marriages and major events in his family’s lives, and he asked his siblings and their children to submit stories recalling their experiences with Grandma. This brought the entire family closer as they shared photos and memories. Though some members were in the book more than others, depending on the amount of material they submitted, my father was careful to include everyone to some extent. I created a cover from a photo of his parents, and he published it, gifting a book to each of his siblings and his own children. His older sister received it gratefully the week before she died. Now that my dad has passed, this book is an even more amazing gift for his family and something we treasure.
Even if you don’t yet know all the reasons you are writing the memoir, and you will make discoveries along the way, you will likely begin with an idea of the general direction you’d like the story to take.
Depending on your goal, you may have to deal with complicated issues such as marriage, parenting, family violence, secrets, emotions, grief, and so forth. These subjects are not for the faint of heart! You may have to limit your book to a certain time period or subject, especially in larger families.
Keep in mind that you should never write out of revenge or to purposefully paint other family members as villains. As the author you will be writing largely from your point of view and not theirs, so unless you have interviewed them thoroughly, make that clear in your text. If there are a lot of hard feelings between family members, it’s a good idea to let time pass so you can have some perspective. There are always at least two sides to every story.
Do You Need Permission?
You can write your story any way you want, and you don’t need permission to tell it like you see it. However, if you are using the stories of others, it would be a good idea to get their approval to use their experiences and memories, even though those stories have become part of your own history.
It is important to get your facts straight. Interviews are a great way to familiarize yourself with the details of your family’s lives and how they have been affected by events. Talking with others can also open your mind to the intricacies of family relationships, enriching your story.
Finish the First Draft
While writing your personal family story can be a rewarding road to self-discovery, it can also be tricky and more than a little frightening. Your words and your interpretation of events might not be appreciated by certain family members, especially if there have been serious and lasting conflicts that have altered a family’s dynamics. That’s why most writers agree that the best way to avoid writer’s block is to get the first draft down before you ask for feedback from your real-life characters.
So at this point in the writing process, don’t worry about how family members will react to what you write. Get it all out. It’s not supposed to be perfect yet. Worrying about others as you write will only make it harder to dig down to the essence of your family dynamics and the story you want to tell.
When to Consider Family Reactions
After your draft is finished, it’s a good idea to give it to a trusted family member to read and give feedback on the book. This person should know enough about the family to anticipate how the others will react to what you’ve written. This is a good idea, especially if you would like to maintain relationships or leave the way open for relationships to be mended.
You can then let others read the book. Some members may try to correct your remembrance of events, so be prepared for more research and revision. Ultimately, you will need to make the final decision about what is included.
That doesn’t mean writing a memoir will always cause contention. While negative reactions are always possible, a memoir can instead bring your family closer together as my father’s memoir about his beloved mother did for us. Perhaps more importantly, writing a memoir will give you insight into your family and help you to discover more about yourself.