Writing the Truth About Your Family

I recently listened to an interview with author of the memoir Imperfect Endings, Zoe Fitzgerald Carter.  She writes about her relationships with her two sisters and her depressed mother, who eventually commits suicide. Part of the interview covers how she felt writing about her family relationships so candidly, how they felt about it, and what it’s like putting such personal information out there for the world to read. At first I didn’t spend much time thinking about the fact that someone I write about in my book might not like what I write about them. But lately it’s become a topic of concern. The girls are now 10 years old. In 5 or 10 years will they be mad at me for something I wrote about them when they were kids? Will their parents? Will my boys be mad at me for sharing too much information with anyone willing to read it?

In Write Personal Without Hurting Your Relationships, Kim Schworm Acosta advises that I blur the details so the person isn’t so recognizable, as long as the point is not lost in the blurring. This can be difficult in a memoir, although my family and I have agreed that mine will be the only last name that appears in the book. But will this really protect them? With the help of the internet, I’m finding it impossible to remain anonymous. Just yesterday, a potential buyer of a used car I listed on craigslist admitted that using only my first name and e-mail address he’d successfully googled me and discovered my identity through a non-profit I’d started in 2006. Should I change everyone’s names in my memoir? Will that even really help? 

Schworm Acosta also suggests being brave and letting the person read what you wrote about them before you submit it for publication. I’ve let the girl’s parents read everything so far before I submit it, but they’ve tended to comment on things I was not worried about, and have skipped right over details that kept me awake at night. I think writing about children adds another caveat. Six- and ten-year-olds can’t read my 200 pages and they certainly can’t predict how they’ll feel about what I’ve written when they’re 20 or 30. So it’s up to their parents. But how as parents are we supposed to be able to predict how sensitive (and what they’ll care about) in the future? This worry makes me want to be kinder on the page than I am in my head. But will an audience want to read kinder, when they really crave reality (think Glass Castle)?

Although she doesn’t mention what kind of changes she made any in response to their comments, Fitzgerald Carter let her sister’s read her memoir before it was published. She says that she tries not to judge her family for their decisions, and that she tried to stay true to what happened. She reminded listeners that a memoirist is only reflecting their version of the story, not necessarily the accurate representation of reality. I’ve had the same situation occur when discussing the past with my sister, Wanda. Her memory of many events from our childhood is markedly different than my own. It makes me question my own perception of reality, my own ability to remember. Am I jaded? Is she?

Schworm Acosta’s article also suggests that sticking to your own experience is a good bet. I’ve always planned to write about the girl’s parents’ divorce from my own perspective, and stay clearly away from the he said/she said’s. But I’d never want to lose a family relationship over writing something unflattering about their life.

One other aspect of the interview with Fitzgerald Carter got my attention. She talks about her success as a writer (and her lack of it).  “A lot of people don’t sell their first book, or can’t get an agent for their first book.” That was the case for her first book, a mystery novel that was never published. Her memoir was her second book and it was picked up by Simon and Shuster within days. Her advice to struggling writers: “the only difference between being published and not being published is being published”. The idea of not writing must be scarier than writing and never being published. You have to get used to the idea that you might never be published in the way that you might like. Are you a writer? Then write, and try not to linger on the threat of rejection. Journalism and blogging can be very fulfilling. This makes me wonder why publishing a book is so much more prestigious. Is it just the money? The length? Why do we worship writers of books, but not give equal admiration to journalists?

Fitzgerald Carter also talks about the vulnerability inherent in writing memoir. She says “you have to separate yourself from the book, because it’s so personal.” It’s not your soul in the world being read and judged, it’s apart from you. You must contact your soul to write well, but your soul stays with you, even after the book goes out into the world. I think this is the part that I struggle with the most. Can I be truly honest in my memoir?  WHEN 🙂 I’m fortunate enough to have it published, will I survive bad reviews, judgments by strangers, and more importantly, judgments from my family that appear in the book?

I’m going to try to accept Schworm Acosta’s final piece of advice, have faith that they’ll come around. My hope is that my relationships with the girls and their parents, and within my own family, are solid and deep enough to weather any upsets that might occur as a result of my writing about them. Or maybe it will be as Schworm Acosta suggests, that my subjects will be so happy that someone wrote about them at all that they won’t care what I actually say about them?

Wish us all luck.

 Lorraine Wilde


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