This is a subscriber-exclusive edition of I Have Notes, a newsletter in which I share essays, conversations, advice, and notes on writing.
Dear I Have Notes,
Some of my family members are nervous about me writing our family story. My book, more than some memoirs, will get into their lives and feelings as well, and I’d hate to embarrass them or cause them trouble. At the same time, I believe in this story, and I think they will like it in the end. How do I take their perspectives into account as I move forward, without allowing them to dominate it or unduly influence the book?
— Caught in the Middle Memoirist
Dear Caught in the Middle,
Your letter made me think about the day I called my mother and asked if she would mind if I tried to write a memoir. (“Mind”!! I was so cute.) “It’s fine,” she told me, “as long as you only say nice things about us.”
I don’t think I’ve ever held a reading or taught a writing class without receiving some version of the question you asked. I generally say that of course, I take my loved ones and their privacy into account when I write; our relationships, and their well-being, are more important to me than any story. I might then describe the steps I took, with my first book, to ensure that there were no unpleasant surprises for anyone on publication day. What I don’t always have time to go into is that I only found writing possible once I stopped approaching it with a long list of things to avoid (having to explain something to my mother, having some stranger disagree with or dislike me, upsetting that one person who is constantly disappointed in me anyway). She won’t make anyone upset or uncomfortable, ever is not really a blurb I want on my books.
Every writer’s life and family situation is unique, so every writer will need to negotiate their own boundaries and guidelines when it comes to writing about the people in their life. There are several things you might want to do (and might already be doing!) to try to take your family members’ perspectives into account as you work on your book: You can talk with them so that you understand the facts as they see them. You can make sure that they show up in your story as whole, complex characters—make them feel as real to us as you, the narrator, will be. Sometimes you might choose to signal, in the text, where your memories diverge: e.g., you remember an event this way; your sister remembers it like that. You can let them read the book prior to publication, not so that they can dominate the editing process or veto things they don’t like, but so they can share their honest impressions with you while there’s still time for discussion.
One thing I would advise you not to do is focus on trying to predict or manage your relatives’ reactions to the book if you’re still in the early stages. If you get too caught up in worrying about what they’ll think, or start writing with an eye toward countering their concerns, you might not say the things you need to say. Do your research, be sure that what you’re writing is as accurate as possible, but know that mid-first draft is not the best time to try to address everybody’s fears and feelings about the book—that time will come. (Also, most of their concerns will be largely hypothetical until you actually have a full manuscript for them to read and react to!)
A teacher once told me that writers write to illuminate a greater truth others cannot see. I used to find this idea compelling—wasn’t that my experience when I read my favorite authors? Didn’t I often feel as though they were providing clarity I needed, giving language to something I knew or felt but couldn’t express? But writers are also human, continually working on a craft we’ll never perfect, writing from our distinct points of view even as we try to understand others’ perspectives. We absolutely have an obligation to write what is true when we write memoir, but I do not believe I have special access to some higher, definitive truth that others do not.
I appreciate this point made by Melissa Febos, in her wonderful craft book Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative (a book I would recommend to anyone trying to write a memoir): “When I think of narrative truth—the truth that lies beyond the verifiable facts of an event—I picture a prism, with as many facets as there are people affected.” If I ever get to read your book, I won’t go into it assuming that I will learn everything there is to know about your life and all the people in it. I will remember that I’m being introduced to one view, the view you’ve chosen to show me—no matter how respectful or intricate or beautiful it is, there are entire vistas I’ll never glimpse.