CRAFT FEATURE // by Marilyn Duarte
Crossing the Line: When and How to Write about Family
When family members are the subject of creative nonfiction, is their privacy unfairly infringed upon? Who has the right to tell a particular story? What is the point of sharing personal stories?
Published in 2013, Family Trouble begins with an introduction by editor Joy Castro followed by twenty-five essays written by nonfiction writers who have asked themselves these questions, amongst others. Each writer has grappled with how to navigate writing about family members without severing their relationships or, at the very least, significantly altering them. These writers discuss their reservations when writing about family as well as their rationales for doing so, and include some, mostly unfavorable, reactions they’ve encountered as a result.
There is much debate amongst writers (and perhaps non-writers) regarding who has the right to share details about the lives of others, particularly when writing about family. Joy Castro says, “With family stories, the stakes are always high, and there are choices both ethical and practical to be made at every stage,” while Rigoberto González, in his essay, “Memory Lessons,” says, “like any art, memory and memoir is meant to go public, no matter how personal, no matter how small.” As memoirists, we must acknowledge that our writing may be negatively received by our subjects, but while we may take certain variables into consideration when deciding who and what to include and exclude in our work, ultimately this deeply personal decision is solely ours to make.
You Have a Right to Tell Your Family’s Stories
In her essay, “A Spell against Sorrow,” Judith Ortiz Cofer asks, “But is my imagining their [my family’s] versions of my story genuinely justifiable, or an invasion? Do I have a right to it all?” Cofer then decides that she has both a right and an obligation to tell her story. In writing about ourselves and our relationship to the world, our stories intersect with others, and so it is expected that we may ponder the same questions as Cofer, although we might not reach the same exact conclusion.
In “Chewing Band-Aids,” Jill Christman wonders, “How will I know what is too private? How will I know when enough is enough?” An important aspect to consider for a writer is whether or not to incorporate family input, as it gives other characters a voice —an opportunity to share their concerns or request certain boundaries be respected. From there, the writer can make a decision about what or how much they are willing to risk when writing.
Faith Adiele, in her essay, “Writing the Black Family Home,” questions a nonfiction writer’s responsibility when she asks, “So what can be gained by revelation? Which stories are critical to us as artists, to the larger world?” As nonfiction writers, we often ask ourselves what, if any, are the benefits of revealing our true stories? Is our truth worth telling if it doesn’t make a difference to readers? Is the risk too great? We might not know the answers to these questions until our works are completed.
With the potential for hurt feelings and ruined relationships, why write memoir at all? Faith Adiele says that, “there are precautions you can take, concessions you can make, but ultimately you’ve demonstrated a power your family doesn’t have. Be prepared to lose them.” So as not to upset family members, some of the writers in Family Trouble compromised by changing or omitting certain material; however, even with modifications, there were still family members who were hurt by the final products. One of our primary obligations as memoirists is to maintain integrity in our work, which includes being as truthful as memory will allow. While people sometimes do and say things that they may later be ashamed or embarrassed about, they can’t expect to restrict what others will do with those memories.
Life is messy, and so it follows that memoirs will evoke a variety of feelings, stir varying reactions, and perhaps even create conflict. Memoirs can also be cathartic, not only for the writers but also for their readers, and this has a bigger purpose than that of protecting hurt feelings. As memoirists, even when we write about family or close friends in a kind way, it does not guarantee that they will react favorably to their portrayal, as was the case with an old friend of mine who I recently wrote about in a creative nonfiction essay. I informed my old friend of his role in my piece, and feel I didn’t portray him negatively, yet he stopped speaking to me as soon as it was published. I am still uncertain about what exactly in the story upset him to such a degree, but I do not regret having written it. As Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” He had been part of a story that had been circling in my mind for years, and once I put it down on paper, I saw the friendship through a fresh lens, which liberated me.
Your Truth Holds Power
Many of these writers discuss the importance of writing about family because it allows them an opportunity to unburden themselves. Speaking their truth is necessary for themselves and for others. Dinty W. Moore writes in his essay, “The Deeper End of the Quarry: Fiction, Nonfiction, and the Family Dilemma,” that, “I believe that more people have been harmed over time by secrets and concealment than by candor and revelation.” There is a sense of freedom one experiences after secrets are exposed; it can alleviate, even release, feelings of shame, fear, and anger. Sharing our stories allows for new narratives to be written.
Judith Ortiz Cofer shares stories about her traumatic childhood with an absent father in her essay, “A Spell against Sorrow: Writing My Father In.” She says, “I began to understand that the teller holds the power, and that, while she is telling it, the story belongs to her.” In cases where one has been a victim, asserting oneself through storytelling becomes a way to take ownership over one’s own life. Similarly, Sue William Silverman writes about her relationship with her father, who molested her: “If I don’t write, I will once again be silenced, just like my childhood self; in essence, my father, again, will silence me.” Breaking silence creates a transition from powerless to powerful.
Not everyone approves of or is comfortable with families being written about. In her essay, “Mama’s Voices,” Susan Olding recounts the time she wrote about her daughter and presented her work to a writing group, which reacted negatively, but none were as harsh as her writing instructor, a famous memoirist whom Olding doesn’t name: “I would worry about you as a person and a writer if you pushed yourself into the limelight with this material.” This reaction shocked Olding and led her to question other elements of her relationship with her daughter: Was she to blame for her daughter’s behavioral problems? Was she betraying her daughter’s trust? The experience cast doubt over what Olding felt she could and could not write about, as well as how she saw herself as a mother. As a result, it took her a year to finish this essay which was centered around her daughter, but has since written and spoken publicly about her.
A helpful point to remember comes from Hedge Coke, in his essay, “You Can’t Burn Everything.” He says, “When people want artillery, they will find it.” Written material can be used as a scapegoat, just as anger can serve as a distraction to an upsetting character portrayal.
In her essay, “Living in Someone Else’s Closet,” Susan Ito writes about how after she told her birth mother that she had written a book about her, the birth mother didn’t speak to her for six years. In some cases, people might disappear from a writer’s life out of anger, but it may also be because they can’t admit painful truths to themselves.
Seek Truth, Not Revenge
For many of the writers in Family Trouble, their intentions when writing memoir are in seeking truth, not revenge; they hold a strong desire to tell their truths, a process which often involves exposing family secrets.
Many of these writers advise that memoir writing should not be done out of revenge or retaliation. Heather Sellers, in her essay, “Writing about Family,” warns, “Do not do this work in order to be seen, to be right. Do it in order to see.” In addition, Jill Christman says that one’s writing must possess a “sincere quest to understand what happened,” and points out that, “Intention matters.” New insights and lessons learned can only emerge on the page when a writer is open to self-discovery. Writers must examine themselves as much as they do other people they write about.
Ask Yourself Who You’re Willing to Risk Hurting
Some writers in Family Trouble have an easier time deciding which event or person to write about over others, but they all acknowledge there is a risk of losing or hurting family members through this process. As memoirists, we always struggle with this: tell our truth or scale it back?
When I first began writing creative nonfiction, I didn’t think anybody would ever read my work, so I only concerned myself with writing stories that had nagged at me for a lifetime without worrying about who I’d risk hurting. For me, once the truth landed on the page, it was difficult to dilute or erase it. It didn’t feel authentic to modify truths that had impacted so strongly upon me in order to appease others. Once I had some pieces published, I became much more aware of protecting the people I wrote about and so, changed their names, thinking that would be enough: it wasn’t.
I took that precaution with the story I mentioned earlier where an old friend I wrote about stopped speaking to me. His decision to end our friendship might not only have been because he feared public embarrassment, but rather might have stemmed from the realization that how I saw him had changed. I’ve accepted that I might never know for sure.
Would I feel differently if it had been a close relative? Maybe. I will most likely be faced with this dilemma in the future and will have to evaluate my subjects and ask myself, “How important is this story to me?” and, “How far am I willing to go?” It’s possible that in some cases, I won’t be ready to lose someone, which will undoubtedly limit what I decide to write. It’s also possible that in other cases, I might risk losing someone for the sake of the truth that screams loudly inside of me, begging to be told.
As memoirists, we must continue to ask ourselves questions about what we’re willing to risk with our work: the bigger the risk, the more we need to be at peace with our reasons for taking it.