Writing Relatives Right

Memoirists and even some fiction writers often wrestle with the thorny question of how to write about our families. I always get a laugh whenever I quote Anne Lamott: “If my family didn’t want me to write about them, they should’ve behaved better.” But what’s the practical way to include people who may recognize themselves in your story?

Writing Tip for Today: Here are a few tips to help you navigate the “writing rellies.”

Better Off Dead

Many writers will counsel their peers to wait until a family member is gone before trashing them on the page. The legal ramifications could be serious. A famous fictional dust-up came for Carolyn Chute’s The Beans of Egypt, Maine when real people surnamed Bean supposedly believed she was poking fun at their family. Yes, if you belong to a litigations-prone family, maybe it’s best to wait until the deceased can tell no tales. If not, maybe ask for a signed waiver.

Most writers can be creative enough to shield themselves from lawsuits. By rearranging events, traits and other particulars, it’s possible to tell your story without injuring anybody’s pride. One way to do this is by universalizing the events, where you express the events in terms of the emotions rather than the chronology. If your story happened in the church hall, replace the surroundings or the occasion with a similar but distinct episode.

A memoirist can make stuff up only if the details don’t really matter to the story. If you replace a fairgrounds with a circus, the outcome and atmosphere might not matter. But if you didn’t attend Woodstock, don’t lie and say you did. Keep the Truth with a capital “T” but you may need to alter the facts to help your readers understand the story.

Details Switcheroo

Switching out details is a time-honored way to disguise a character or situation. As I mentioned, you could replace names, looks, even gender to keep relatives from recognizing themselves (and heading to their attorney).

If your relative is chunky, slim them down. If the person speaks with a twang, make it a brogue. Employ misdirection for the purpose of protecting yourself, but don’t make them into a caricature. If in real life your relative or close person has a certain way of cutting her meat or other character tag, write that and change the ordinary details of looks and sound.

Dialogue in memoir is often a stumbling block for writers who insist on recreating “truth.” Most of us can’t remember what we heard someone say ten minutes ago, much less ten years ago. Write dialogue as best you remember it and don’t worry about accuracy except in climactic moments.

Switch out qualities to disguise a relative who might be upset by your story.

Memoir’s About You

Remember, a memoir is about you. Your memories. Your feelings. Your lessons learned; truth discovered. But if you write in a monologue without many scenes, readers may not stick around. Get your “world” on stage and allow readers to experience you as you interact with others.

Yes, you will be showing a story through your own perspective. But remember, readers need to relate to what you write. They want to see themselves in your story. Err on the side of kindness to keep your story from grinding an axe. Avoid painting yourself as all virtuous and your family as all evil.

By writing more scenes than narrative, readers can make up their own minds about what you’re telling them. Show, don’t tell—memoir is way more than just your rant or your whine. By allowing readers to judge for themselves, you can elevate your story beyond you and your family. Writing about family is tricky, all right. Some writers will wait until people have passed on. And the rest of us brave souls can use tips and tricks (and maybe a signed waiver?) to get our stories written without riling up the relatives. Don’t know about yours, but mine don’t always behave that much better. Happy writing!

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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