Digging the family dirt

Perhaps the questions the writer most fears from her potential readers is: Why have you done this? With the implication: Why have you done this to me? — Mary Gordon, Circling My Mother

Can we get too personal when we’re writing our memoirs or family stories? Is it wiser to stuff the hard emotional truth into a private journal and keep quiet?

The dilemma hit home last week when I visited my mother in her new assisted living residence. On the table in her kitchenette was a fresh copy of Michigan Senior Living, a publication featuring a new column I’d written about my mother’s difficult transition to assisting living. Oops. It should go without saying that I didn’t intend for my mother to see it.

Focusing on the heartbreak of Mom’s battle with vascular dementia, the column was the most difficult assignment I’ve ever tackled. So I was relieved to learn later that my candid story helped many readers who are facing similar challenges with their parents.

In any event, I have no idea how the magazine found its way to her apartment. My mother doesn’t subscribe to the newspaper that includes Michigan Senior Living as a supplement.

As it happens, Mom’s vascular dementia has progressed to the point where she can’t process and retain new information. Not all that long ago, she’d devour decorating magazines and mystery novels faster than I could supply her with new editions — but she’s lost her ability to read much of anything now. Regardless, I discretely pulled the publication off her table and stuffed it into my tote bag.

Having worked as a family newspaper columnist for years, I’ve wrestled with similar issues many times before. But this recent episode got me thinking about how risky personal writing can be — whether we’re writing about our parents, children, siblings, or in-laws.

How much is too personal?

In “How to Write a Memoir” in The American Scholar, author and creative writing professor William Zinsser offers some excellent advice. “Your first job is to get your story down as you remember it—now,” Zinsser says. “Dont look over your shoulder to see what relatives are perched there. Say what you want to say, freely and honestly, and finish the job. Then take up the privacy issue.”

If your relatives are named or clearly identified in print, Zinsser suggests, you may want to show them the pages in which they are mentioned. But be prepared for your family to ask you to remove anything they don’t like.

“Finally, its your story,” Zinsser says. “Some of your relatives will wish you hadnt said some of the things you said, especially if you reveal various family traits that are less than lovable. But I believe that at some level most families want to have a record left of their effort to be a family, however flawed that effort was, and they will give you their blessing and will thank you for taking on the job—if you do it honestly and not for the wrong reasons.”

The “wrong reasons” vary from writer to writer, so it’s important to question your own motives when you sit down to write. If youre hoping to commit an act of vengeance, for instance, youre definitely on the wrong track. On the other hand, if you aim to uplift, inform, comfort, or provide a service to your readers, your good intentions will shine through the most painful parts of your piece.

What to leave in — or out

In my own memoir classes, I often ask students to make a list of the most compelling memoirs and autobiographies they’ve ever read. Did the writers of those memoirs gloss over their most difficult experiences? Were their chapters free of conflict? Were the characters entirely noble, flawless, or problem-free? Probably not. Life is incredibly complex and messy, and no family is perfect.

Even if you enjoy reading other people’s dirt and drama, you’re probably squeamish when it comes to sharing your own. And it’s entirely possible that you might be better off writing poetry or science fiction instead. But if you want to write an honest and richly detailed memoir, you will have to confront the hard truth as well as the soft.

Brett Paesel agrees. Writing without censoring early in the process will usually “produce the freshest, deepest draft,” says Paesel, author of Mommies Who Drink and a popular blog, Last of the Bohemians. “As I’m revising, I make choices about what I want a reader to read,” she says. “Often, I leave in quite a bit. My family knows what I do and I’m not normally an unkind person.”

As Paesel notes, if you don’t want your memoir to be “totally soft,” it’s likely that you’ll risk offending someone. “Off the top of my head I can’t remember who said, ‘If people don’t like what you’ve written about them, they shouldn’t have behaved so badly,’ but they have a point.”

What do you think? Have you written anything about your family that you’d be reluctant to publish? How would you handle sensitive material?

— Top photo: “My Wall of Fame” by Cindy La Ferle —

12 thoughts on “Digging the family dirt

  1. Hmm. I find I am only comfortable sharing after I have enough distance from the experience I am writing about that a natural sort of humor comes out. It makes the story more palatable to the reader, I like to think. And I have written about my mom – although she may not have been alive when that particular story got published. I’m not answering your question very well, am I?? 🙂

    I loved The Glass Castle because Jeannette Walls never sounded bitter or as though she was feeling sorry for herself or blaming others for her sad childhood. She just told the story.

    • Thanks for this comment, Pam. When a loved one has died, it’s easier to express the difficult parts and not have to worry about facing them — that’s certain. There’s really no “right” answer to the questions posed here … just what works best for each writer. It’s not easy, and I still struggle with this. As you’ll note from the link embedded in the piece (to the Christian Science Monitor essay about writing about my son), I have had “issues” and battles with this topic!

  2. I’m sorry your mother is slowly slipping away. Is she aware of what’s happening?
    Memoirs, I want to write one and have given much thought into how to handle the whole privacy thing. I agree with Pam, if I could do it the way Jeannette Walls did, just maybe? Right now I’m still to angry to be fair.

  3. Cindy, For many years, I did a great deal of genealogical research. I created files on my many lines as well as my husbands. Initially, I made for each of his siblings a “scrapbook” that included my data as well as family photographs naming all the people. I then decided to creat a “memoir” of sorts that included family stories as well as factual data that I had proved. His family was quite pleased with the results, although, there was some grumbling. My answer to the grumbling was for that person to retype and delete what they found disagreeable. My family consists of my sister and I. I followed the same format as my husbands; however, I was more honest because I included the good as well as the bad. Since this work was only for our family members, I didn’t feel I needed to omit facts. Stories I made clear were memories passed down that I had no way to prove.

    I don’t do genealogical research any longer. I have many great neices and nephews who have used the data for school papers. I do know their parents did “edit” what their children included in their papers.

    Jeanette Walls ..Glass Castle.. is an exceptional example of a memoir that didn’t appear to hide anything. I think anyone considering a family memoir has to consider those who are being written about. As time changes individuals, it also changes society; consequently, depending on the generation, incidents that were embarassing to one age group aren’t to another. However, living people, I believe, need to be respected when written word can cause them to feel badly.

    My two cents for what it’s worth.

  4. Hi Cindy, Interesting post and lots to think of. I guess my short answer would be that I write it all down but I never click the “publish” button if step-children or in-laws are involved. A girl’s gotta keep the peace 😉

    xo jj

  5. You raise an excellent question, Cindy, and I guess each writer has to decide how much is too much based on their family and relationship dynamics. Is the story worth telling? Can the experience help another? Is there a respectful way to share a difficult memory that won’t add to the wound felt by others? These are just a few of the questions I ponder before I write.

    • Thanks, Lynne. As you put it, one of the most important questions is: “Can the experience help another?” That was my hope for the MSL piece, and I am still getting mail from readers who are struggling with the assisted living issue (with their parents). It always helps to know you’ve helped someone with a piece of writing — which I know you have, too.

  6. Cindy, your piece for the magazine was an informational piece as much as it was personal to your situation. I haven’t read it but I’m sure you were sensitive because I know the person you are. My writing is different: when I started my blog I made the commitment not to include anything personal about others in my family. Period. I write about my journey and only speak for myself. I think our intent, the “right reasons,” set the boundaries.

  7. Pingback: Oversharing – Opening The Door A Bit, But Not All The Way | Gifts Of The Journey

  8. Helpful is a curious word and the first thing I consider is me. I don’t do that in all things, but when it comes to writing I remind myself that it’s my story and sugar coating the truth is not something that is helpful to me. I could go on and on about this topic … writing about my story is rarely just about me (alone) and feeling as if I can’t share what may involve someone else takes away from my ability to share my truth.

    I included a link to your post here on something I wrote today. I hope that’s okay.

    I’m sorry about your mom … I know that must be very painful.

    • Thanks so much, Elizabeth. I’ve missed your posts, and was sorry to learn you’ve had a rough time. I read your excellent post this morning and left a comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.