Writing About Family: Truth and Consequences

Written by Hollye Dexter



Storytelling has existed since the beginning of humankind. Our stories are the connective tissue that holds humanity and possibly even the universe together. Poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser famously wrote, “The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Every person on this planet has a unique life path and therefore an interesting tale to share, and yet so many of us struggle with whether or not we have the right to tell our stories. We are silenced by the fear upsetting others, mainly our family, in writing our truth.

Who Owns The Truth?

I begin my book Fire Season with this note:
“In my extended family, arguing over versions of our history is practically a blood sport. My relatives will wrestle each other to the mat about the way it all went down. In reality, there is no such thing as absolute truth, only our personal interpretations of it. Each of us sees life through our own unique lens. The best way I’ve ever heard it described was by a woman I met in a writing group. She said as her mother lay dying, she and her sister sat on either side of the hospital bed, holding their mother’s hands. At the moment of her passing, the sisters spoke simultaneously. One said, “She’s gone cold!” The other said, “She’s still warm.” And both statements were true to the women who made them.
I do my best, as a flawed and complex person myself, to write with compassion and understanding. There are no heroes or villains in my books, only imperfect humans doing the best they can. Mine is not the elusive absolute truth, but it is my truth.”
The bottom line is that you own the rights to your life story. No one else can shape it, or write it like you can. Your story is the only thing of true value that you own– the one thing that can’t be taken from you. Cherish that.
Write Honest Characters:
In memoir writing, it’s important to write with objectivity. If I portray myself as the hero and someone who wronged me as a one-dimensional Hitler, the reader is not going to believe it, and the story won’t work.  Even Hitler had a dog he loved. That’s the interesting part. Every character is rich with contradictions. Our job is to find those contradictions and flesh them out — to portray each character as a whole human being. Fiction writers climb inside each character, listen to their voices. Every character comes to a scene with his or her own agenda. Even in memoir, we need to get behind the agenda of each character. Let’s say you’re writing about your mother (and honestly, who isn’t?). The message of the book can’t be “My agenda was to be happy but my mother’s agenda was to make me miserable.” From your perspective, that may be true, but certainly that was not your mother’s sole agenda in life. A powerful writing exercise is to try writing the scene from your mother’s point of view, in her voice, then rewrite the scene, from your perspective but with deeper honesty and a fuller understanding of each character.

Fear of Abandonment

Writing the truth is both terrifying and liberating – for you, and for the reader. The fact is that no matter how careful you are, you’re going to hit a nerve and upset some people, because, as Pema Chodron says, fear is a reaction to moving closer to the truth. Being a writer means telling the truth, facing the fear of abandonment, and writing through it. Initially, when first putting pen to page, write like an orphan. Forget your family. Dump it all out of your head, every single word, thought, and feeling. And then take some time away from the manuscript.  When you return to reread and edit, keep only what is absolutely necessary to the arc of the story. Delete everything else. Find compassion for every character. Soften the edges of your anger. When you finally hit send on the manuscript, keep in mind that it’s called a book “release.”  Release it. Your work now belongs to the world and the readers to judge, to love or to hate. For my own moments of panic, I have these words from author Steve Almond above my desk:  



Be proud of yourself for releasing a complete work of your unbearable feelings, and let the world do with it as they will. 


** An excerpt of this article was published in Writer’s Digest: http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/3-rules-on-writing-about-your-family



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1 Comment

  1. Unknown

    Hi Hollye, we've had this conversation before but I am still unsettled about it. When I think of writing about some things in my life that profoundly impacted me, I have no problem. However, when that same situation impacted another family member or is someone else's secret it just feels wrong to share that without their permission. I think of AA and it's policy of anonymity. I went to AA for years so I know this well. It is not my place to tell other peoples stories. When I think of writing, I have no problem with putting most of my thoughts down on paper. I understand one of your points well. When I shared about my brother being mentally ill on FB, my sister immediately contacted me and said "what do you mean mentally ill, he wasn't, period. Her "truth" was that yes, we had a lot of dysfunction in our family for sure, but was it mental illness, no. My understanding was based on situations that happened with my brother, knowledge about things my father had done to him as a young boy and his being under the care of a psychiatrist when he was a teenager, along with other problems that plagued him his entire life. Who's truth was "the truth"? We will never really know. My father molested my sister and possibly me. I have no clear memory but instead vague memories of a man coming in our bedroom at night. I have had night terrors as I watch the bedroom door. There is more but my point being this is an intimate part of my life. My sister was the one we know for sure was molested. I'm convinced that with some of my issues growing up, night terrors and nightmares etc. that I was as well. Can I write about that? Yes, but can I share my sisters agony publicly. That seems cruel. Some of the other family "secrets" I know could put someone in jail, ruin their reputation or cause them to lose a job. It would seem selfish to me to do that just so I can get my story out. Thoughts?


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