Writing About Family: Is It Worth It?

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Writing About Family: Is It Worth It?”

from The Writer’s Chronicle – October 2001

I made up my mind at the beginning of my writing life not to write about my family and friends, since I want them to remain my family and friends.”
Novelist Carol Shields

“Write what you know!” is the advice given freely to writers not engaged in academic research and journalism—and what we know best involves family. If that becomes a problem, fiction writers and poets have some wiggle room. They can say, “Hey that’s not you! That’s my imagination at work!” and hope for grace. Memoirists and personal essayists have no such cover. The pact we make with our readers is “This is all true!” and truth is expected, even if we include disclaimers such as “To protect those who didn’t ask to be in this story, I’ve changed some names and locales.” With close relatives—mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings—not even this safety option is possible if we call our work memoir. Which is happening more and more in our age of Oprah, reality TV, memoir courses, grass roots publications, not to mention the over thirty million, true-story books sold last year.

People want to know about real lives, involving real names, and more writers are willing to share their “true” stories. Partly, it is the awaiting public, but it is also, I think, the growing legitimacy of creative nonfiction as a genre—one that encourages a merging of nonfiction and storytelling so that the result must be interesting, not just factual. A friend who just came back from a writers’ colony said that half the poets and fiction writers there were working on memoirs. She, in fact, had just finished an essay on her mother. Would she show it to her mother? I asked. No. Would she publish it? She wasn’t thinking about that yet.

Writers must think about it, I found out the hard way--after I sent my mother an essay about my father that I thought she’d love. He was a hero in this particular essay—brave, prescient, a wily outwitter of Nazis, and that was 90% of the story, enough to compensate for a few lines about their forty years of marriage, which weren’t nasty lines, just this

“They were happy, my father loved to announce at weddings, because of two excellent rules: Never go to bed mad! Always have a sense of humor! No matter that my father, as German husband, always made the jokes and my mother, as German wife, was always supposed to laugh. Sometimes it took a day or two.”

Nothing my mother didn’t remember after all those mornings of silent treatment she gave him. Nothing family or friends who called or popped by didn’t know—or that the world, given the scheme of sins, would condemn. But she was silent and hurt.

Partly, it was a privacy issue: What right had I to reveal publicly her private moments? Partly, it was that she read a subtext that had eluded me until my Cousin Anne called. “You got your dad just right! I could picture him again!” she said, much to my delight. But then she asked rather pointedly, “How did your mother like the essay?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, but I suddenly knew.
“Oh, you mean the lines about her sulking?” I had worried about that passage, added and deleted it several times before deciding that it helped to make a forty-year marriage seem real.

She laughed, I laughed—but I no longer rush to send stories to family members when I’m euphoric after finishing something I assume they will love. I wait until all the subtexts (which I don’t want to know early on or they sink me into caution and self-consciousness) reveal themselves through time and feedback. I wait until I’ve shifted hats from writer (who avoids analysis) to reader (who depends on it). I wait until trustworthy reader friends who know my family give a green, red, or yellow light.

This strategy has worked for stories meant as homage, but what about those that intentionally tell family secrets, embarrassments, betrayals—or tread in dangerous emotional waters we are still in? Should we not write them because of hurt feelings and privacy issues, or should we go ahead because, after all, they are our stories and demand to be told? This question became particularly relevant last summer when my book on married life, Thoughts from A Queen-sized Bed, was accepted by University of Nebraska Press. The idea that my husband, mother, and children (who had been scattered safely in places they’d never read unless I alerted them) would all be found between two covers sounded dangerous. I started asking other writers what they did about family stories, and, as you’ll see, their answers depend on the genre, the urgency of a particular story to be told as “true”—and the writer’s family.

Some writers, like Carol Shields, avoid all memoir, saying it causes too much ill will. Others, like Lillian Ross (whose memoir revealed her forty-year affair with New Yorker editor William Shawn), reply unabashedly to criticism about ruining reputations, “But it’s my story, too!” Most writers fall in between these poles of “Never!” and “Why not?” basing their decision both on motive (Why am I telling this story?) and craft (How well can I tell it?)

If the main impulse is self-disclosure, it’s best to resist these stories, says poet and essayist Stephen Dunn. They are often “the kind that should be put in a locked cabinet, like diaries, kept, if at all, as private data for our children to find after we’re dead.” How to tell? If the motive never shifts from confession to exploring the story’s subject matter, the work will be insufficiently transformed and include details for the worst of reasons—because they happened. “The too naked poem,” Dunn warns, “the one that makes dirty laundry its flag, which never gets beyond its original impulse” is a poem we have failed. We should hide it from everyone.”

Other reasons for restraint: because our motive for writing is revenge, and that’s a bad idea, nowarns Annie Dillard. “While literature is an art, it is not a martial art place to defend yourself from an attack, real or imagined, and no place to launch an attack.” Or because we haven’t yet found a way to tell a story that family members will forgive—and that matters. That is why Frank McCourt published Angela’s Ashes about the family struggles against poverty after his mother died. And why Russell Baker waited to write Growing Up about his mother’s struggles during the Depression until after she was senile and in a nursing home. And why others wait for the safe venue, hoping, as I do with this essay, that no one who reads this will know my mother and say to her, “Oh, you’re the one with the morning sulks.”

Sometimes to tell or not depends on getting permission. Annie Dillard says she wrote An American Childhood with the idea of removing whatever family members found offensive.

“My parents are quite young. My sisters are watching this book carefully. Everybody I’m writing about is alive and well, in full possession of his faculties, and possibly willing to sue. Things were simpler when I wrote about muskrats my family that each may pass on the book. As a result I’ve promised to take out anything that anyone objects to—anything at all.”

Threat of a lawsuit is something to consider, even though lawsuits are hard to win. Writers can be sued for libel—if they say something that defames someone’s character and is not true. Writers can also be sued for invasion of privacy, in which truth is no defense, according to Carol Meyer, author of The Writer’s Survival Manual. “Even if what you say is true, you can be sued for invasion of privacy, especially under the false-light and embarrassing facts concepts.” The former refers to “embellishing, fictionalizing, or distorting certain facts” to make the person look bad; the latter refers to making disclosures the person has not given you permission to reveal. Whenever possible, it’s best not to use a non-famous person’s real name without permission. Dinitia Smith in “Why Do they Keep Giving Away Other People’s Secrets” cites lawyer Leon Friedman on this. You can use a person’s identity, he adds, without the name.

With people not central to the story—friends, neighbors, colleagues, second cousins, et al—many writers opt to change not only names, but professions, physical features, and location. Some use composites, and to those who argue that this crosses the line into fiction, they say, their aim is to hide identity without changing the spirit—or emotional truth—of the story. As long as they add a disclaimer that informs the reader of this, they feel they can still call the story memoir or personal essay.

Ideal is to have family that supports your work, someone like Alicia Ostriker’s husband, for example, who hasn’t objected (so far) despite all the ribbing he has received from colleagues at work, for poems such as “Locker Room Conversation.” This one takes place in a university’s men’s locker room where a bunch of professors typically shower “in the hum of conversation:”

“...Today he tells me someone he’s never seen

Walked into the shower, a kid, near seven feet,
Black curly hair, bronze, except for a bikini mark,
Blue eyes, face of an angel, body of a Greek hero,
Thighs the circumference of my husband’s waist,
Dong of a god; and conversation stopped.
Every man just soaped and rinsed himself.
Afterward, as they dressed, my husband asked
A couple of friends—What did you think of that guy?
—What guy? they said.”

“So what do you think?” Alicia asked one night when she and her husband had had enough to drink. The poem had been published, so permission was not the issue, but she was wondering about all the marriage poems she has published over the years—some much worse than this one. “It’s your job as poet,” he told her. “You write for all those who can’t say things for themselves.”

“It was the perfect answer,” Alicia said to me. “Every once in a while they come through for you.”

His support, she feels, encouraged her to write “Scenes from a Mastectomy,” a knock-your-socks-off personal essay about her mastectomy and her marriage. As with all essays, it is far more explicit than a poem; and the power of this essay, in particular, comes from its honesty about self-image and relationships. I send it to everyone I know who has had breast cancer (in Living in the Margins: Women Writers on Breast Cancer).

Some writers try a collaborative approach to family stories. To write The Color of Water, James McBride taped his mother’s history during hours of interviews and then wrote alternating chapters, one in his voice, one in hers. Hilda Raz and her son Aaron, both seasoned writers, are collaborating to write one memoir jointly. Called What Becomes You, it tells the story of Aaron’s trans-sexuality in alternating chapters that allow each a voice and perspective. The authorial power, usually in the hands of one, is shared but not diluted—and there are other perks, says Hilda, editor of Prairie Schooner and a poet. “By exchanging and critiquing drafts, he’s pushed me to greater and greater candor. It’s been hard, but important for both of us.”

Sometimes there is no permission, and still the true story must be told. That is what Helen Fremont, author of After the Long Silence, decided when writing about how her life and Catholic identity were affected by her discovery of her parents’ Holocaust story. She had started by writing a novel based on their lives, but two years into the project, when she discovered, through research, that her grandparents had died in Auschwitz, she knew she had to switch to memoir--even if it meant revealing her parents’ biggest secret: that they were Jewish.

“As a fiction writer, I thought it would be easier to make the story up, using the general outline of their lives as a guide. But once I received pages of testimony documenting how my grandparents had been killed, and once I learned that everyone in my family had been Jewish, I was seized by the need to find out the truth, to steep myself in research, to interview as many survivors--including my parents—as I could.”

Fiction felt wrong, not only because the real story was more powerful, but because no matter

what the family fallout, the truth had to be preserved: to bear witness and pay tribute.

“In effect, my grandparents and aunts and uncles had been wiped off the face of the earth by fascist regimes. There are no gravestones, or markers, and the generation of eyewitnesses is rapidly dwindling. Holocaust revisionists and deniers increasingly dismiss the fact of the extermination of Jews as fiction or .Fiction nofantasy, and I felt it important to add my voice to the record longer served my needs; I realized that I had to write the story, finally, as memoir.”

Helen’s family has not yet been reconciled to her book, but she still feels, two years later, that the price was important enough to pay. For others, like journalist Andrea Cooper, that price is too high. When her brother vehemently objected to an essay about their childhood, she got him to allow her to submit it, at least, to a contest. It won, but she has not published it yet, and a lawsuit is not the issue. “My relationship with my brother matters more than a publication. He felt that his life was being raided for my purposes, reducing the power of what happened to him, to us. I had to accept that.” But she is still hoping to change his mind.

Whatever the final decision—to call it fiction or memoir, to publish it or not—everyone seems to agree on two things: 1) you have to write first and worry after you have a full draft that’s waited in a drawer for awhile; and 2) you must decide, on a case by case basis, how much you are willing to risk. If your story, like one of my student’s, involves telling Mafia secrets, it’s probably smart to forget it, even if you change everyone’s name. But if the story involves your grandfather, and your mother and aunt scoff, “You got it all wrong!” the response should be the one that Michael Steinberg gave to his mother and aunt: “This is about my grandfather, not your father.”

The risk of ill will is often reduced by gaining distance from the material. Wordsworth’s advice—to let emotion be recollected in tranquility—is particularly apt for family stories because one’s initial impulses to write about family often begin with self-pity or fury. The result is an impassioned journal entry, but a dull read for others. As I warn my students, the more you make yourself the hero of memoir, the more readers sympathize with your adversaries. You become a Woe-is-Me character who, as in life, overpowers the urge of others to root for you.

To avoid this, I remind them (and myself) of writer Bret Lott’s advice that a memoirist, in particular, must think of truth as having a small t, not a big one—as in my truth rather than the truth. Fiction writers do this more naturally, particularly writing in third person, for they have invented every character, and so are invested in letting each one make his or her own strong case for truth. But in memoir, when the ‘I’ represents both author and speaker, the temptation is to become myopic with self-centeredness—to see the world, especially family, as we did as children: full of heroes and villains, victims and victors, bullies and wimps. Unless we challenge these initial certainties—my father was a saint, my sister a prick—we lose the complexity of character that make readers care about and trust our vision. It’s that complexity that offers the best chance to hear “You got it just right.”

That complexity also offers the best chance to avoid bad feelings, as Kim Barnes found out when her parents read her memoir, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in an Unknown Country. She had worried that her father, in particular, would be angry at her version of her rebellion against her parents’ Pentecostal religion, but his main complaint was about a few facts she got wrong. As she says,

“One thing that we always assume, wrongly, is that if we write about people honestly they will resent it and become angry. If you come at it for the right reasons and you treat people as you would your fictional characters—you know, you don’t allow them to be static—if you treat them with complexity and compassion, sometimes they will feel as though they’ve been honored, not because they’re presented in some ideal way but because they’re presented with understanding.”

Sometimes changing the tone of a story is the answer—not only for good relations but for a good story. After an infuriating family weekend, I wrote a draft that felt great, but was whiny and totally unsympathetic—even to myself, rereading it two months later. A few months after that I was telling a friend about the weekend: how I was trapped with twenty-two relatives in a lodge during a hurricane; and how I kept running outdoors all weekend to hike in pouring rain rather than hear the constant pick, pick, picking of relatives about how my son should have rented a car. Now I sounded more like a bemused E.B. White than Attila, the Hun, so I tried again, and my writing group liked it—a funny story, everyone said. My son, not laughing, did give me permission to publish, so it is tucked into the middle of my marriage book and, maybe, the other twenty relatives won’t read that far.

Sometimes calling it fiction is the only solution—not just as cover, but also because, as Pam Houston believes, “I write fiction to tell the truth.” If the real facts inhibit the telling, and it is imagination that captures what is true, tell it as fiction. That’s what Bret Lott did in Jewel, his novel about his grandmother, which is 85% true. He wanted to write it first person, from a woman’s point of view, and fiction gave him maneuvering room. It was also nice to tell his grandmother, “Oh, that was greatly exaggerated,” when she questioned his rendering of her. “Fiction” satisfied her. It also worked for Dinty W. Moore, writing about his parents’ alcoholism. He also took another precaution: to publish in a journal his mother would never read, but , alas, he did send it to his sister, who sent it their mother. This story has a happy ending, however, thanks to the cover of fiction. His mother said, “Ah, that Dinty. He has such an imagination!”

Most writers are less lucky, more like my friend whose novel came out right before she went home for a family wedding. She got the cold shoulder from people who saw themselves in her “novel” and didn’t like what they saw. “But that is not you!” she explained amicably, not even remembering the complainers. Her disclaimer accomplished nothing.

If only we could use the disclaimer my friend, Penelope Dugan, thinks we should add to all family stories: that “none of my family members ever existed in fact—or bears any resemblance to anyone living or dead.” How liberating—even though, if true, we memoirists would have nothing left to write about! For it is the need to capture people who did exist and make their world, and thus our own, come alive again that is at the heart of this genre. So we renter old lives to discover what they meant to us: to pay homage, to bear witness, to commemorate, to learn something new, and to pass that on

“To write one’s life enables the world to know its history,” Patricia Hampl says, referring to memoir at its best, and the authentic memoir voice “...that singular voice—it not only has the evidence. It is the evidence.” But not, I would add, without family stories—whatever their risk.

Sources Cited

Barnes, Kim - The Fourth Genre, Volume 2, issue 2.

Dunn, Stephen - “Degrees of Fidelity.” Mid-American Review, 2000.

Dillard, Annie - “To Fashion a Text.” The Fourth Genre, edited by Steinberg and Root, Allyn & Bacon.

Fremont, Helen - email response, November 2000.

Hampl, Patricia - “First Person Singular.” Alaska Review, Winter, 2000.

Meyer, Carol - The Writer’s Survival Manual, Crown Publishers, New York. 1988.

Ostriker, Alicia - phone interview, September, 2000.

Poem excerpt is from The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998, Pitt Poetry Series.

Raz, Hilda - phone interview, August 2000.

Shields, Carol - “Opting for Invention Over the Injury of Invasion,” New York Times, Monday, April 10, 2000.

Smith, Dinitia - “Why Do They Keep Giving Away Other People’s Secrets?” New York Times, October 24, 1998 Sec. B, p. 9.

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