The short answer is that you can’t write a truthful memoir without hurting your relatives. But, you might be able to find ways to write your life story and still be able to go to family reunions without being stoned. If you do find those ways, can you share them with me? Because I haven’t figured it out yet. My mom was hurt by the back cover blurb of my first traditionally published book, Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back. I thought it may be difficult for her to hear how I experienced my childhood, but I had to write that book.
You are not alone if you’re wondering how to write your life story without hurting your relatives or even your close family friends. These tips are inspired by a reader who left this comment on my post for memoir writers:
“Your article on tips for writing your memoir is informative as well as inspiring,” says Alma on 10 Tips for Writing the Most Important Story of Your Life. “But there is a question which disturbs me. What about certain unpleasant events related to your extended family that you will have to divulge if it is a genuine memoir and which may hurt others?”
All families have unpleasantness, embarrassments, and even scandals! How do memoir writers find the balance between sharing their story, and not hurting their family members? And, how much responsibility do writers have to protect people – especially at the cost of squelching their own creative urges?
5 Ideas for Writing a Memoir That Doesn’t Hurt Family Members
I have no easy answers, but I do have a few suggestions. I also have my own experience to draw on. Not only was my mother hurt by the back cover blurb of my book, at least one of my in-laws thought I shouldn’t have disclosed the reason my husband and I never had children (he has azoospermia, which means his body doesn’t produce sperm).
How do you write a truthful memoir that isn’t hurtful? It depends on many factors, such as how much your family cares what people think, who and what you are writing about, where your family is now, how much time has passed, and what your purpose is for writing. These five ideas will give you some options to think about.
1. Let time (and family members) pass before writing your memoirs?
You might consider waiting until the family members involved in unpleasantness have died, and then write your memoirs. This way you protect their ego and self-image, and avoid family conflict. Personally, I wouldn’t encourage this because I believe it infringes on your rights as a writer. Also, waiting until a family member dies doesn’t mean that his or her extended, living relatives won’t be insulted or hurt by your memories and memoir. It’s not just the family member directly involved in unpleasantness who is affected – it’s his or her children, grandchildren, and other kinfolk.
“You own everything that happened to you,” writes Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
2. Protect your family member’s identity by concealing the details
Change the names and identifying details of the family members, and note in your memoir that details have been changed to protect family members. This doesn’t mean your memoir isn’t real or true, it just means you’re not exposing family to unnecessary unpleasantness. Whether or not they’ve asked for forgiveness for the “transgressions” they committed or the mistakes they made, the events are still in the past. Changing their identifying details may be the best tip for writing your memoirs without hurting family members; it balances your need to write and their need for privacy.
Also, learn how professional or experienced memoir writers write their life stories. Read books like Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart. “I have been both blessed and bruised by the memoir-writing genre,” she writes. In Handling the Truth she “thinks out loud about the form of memoir writing—on how it gets made, on what it means to make it, on the searing language of truth, on the thin line between remembering and imagining, and, finally, on the rights of memoirists.”
3. Ask your family for permission to share?
You might consider telling your relatives that you want to write your life story but you don’t want to hurt them. Ask if they’d be okay if you shared your memories and experiences as you remember them happening. If your family members agree, create a written agreement or statement that verifies their agreement. Memories can be short in situations like this. The last thing you need – especially if your memoir is published by a traditional publishing house – is a “she said, he said” situation. But if your memoir is traditionally published, the editors may have their own in-house disclosure statements. You may have to ask your family members to formally agree that you have their permission to tell your story.
Note that you don’t necessarily need your family members to agree with your decision to write your memoirs. Tell them that you’re writing the story of your life, and that it’s not your intention to hurt them. How you and your family works this out is up to you and your family…but their wish to hide the truth of your experience or their need to protect themselves isn’t your business. Your business is your business. In this case, writing your memoir is your business.
4. Say nothing about writing your memoirs until you need to
You could write your book without telling any of your relatives or close family friends. If you do decide to self-publish, or get a literary agent, or approach traditional publishing house on your own – and if your memoir looks like it’ll get published – then you might sit down for a family talk.
Remember that it’s extremely difficult to get a traditional publisher to publish a memoir. Even the life story of a famous, wealthy or controversial person doesn’t guarantee publication anymore. It’s easier to self-publish, but then you have to market and promote your book. That’s tough, even for natural salespeople.
If you’re serious about writing your memoirs, just write them. What your family doesn’t know won’t hurt them.
5. Learn how to write a memoir – and how to deal with the consequences
“None of us can ever know the value of our lives, or how our separate and silent scribbling may add to the amenity of the world, if only by how radically it changes us, one and by one.” writes Mary Karr in The Art of Memoir. “In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right.”
Also – it’s important to know why you’re writing your memoirs. As long as you’re not writing your story to punish or expose family members, you have every right to share your experiences! Writing your memoirs is about you.
What do you think of these tips for writing memoirs without hurting family members? Questions and comments welcome below!