One of my biggest struggles as a writer is perception — what will people think of me and my writing. And the people I worry the most about aren’t my husband and children. They see my writing as a part of who I am. They aren’t surprised to see themselves in my essays or stories. They take it in stride and accept it as what it means to live with a writer. They point me back to my writing when I’ve taken extended breaks and when I’m struggling emotionally with an issue.
My extended family, however, is another story. Our shared history is more complicated. Our relationships are a bit more tenuous. As they say, there’s a lot of water under those bridges.
Consequently, when I sit down to write, I worry about how my family will judge my telling of these stories. Will they be taken as a betrayal or as a misrepresentation? Will there be hurt feelings and anger? Will they stop speaking to me or want to sever our relationship? Or could there be legal consequences?
Those questions get in my head and start to mess with the way I write. The net result is my writing becomes a shell of what it could be. It’s flat and uninteresting.
The fear of ramifications from family is real for many writers. As a result, countless stories, essays, memoirs, and novels never get written.
But lately, I’ve started to think differently. I contend, unless you make it to the New York Times bestsellers list, your family isn’t as interested as you think they are. At least that’s been my experience. I recently had an essay published that contained commentary I thought might be offensive. I worried about the fallout after posting the link to the journal on my Facebook page. But not only wasn’t there any fallout; there weren’t any comments at all.
There’s a good chance what we believe to be offensive isn’t as bad as we think it is. If we reveal family secrets or traumas that may be unknown, we have to consider why we are writing about it in the first place. Often, we write to make sense of our lives. Anne Lamott puts it this way:
“There’s a door we all want to walk through, and writing can help yo find it, and open it. Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up.”Bird by Bird
And yet, we don’t live in a vacuum. Other people’s lives intersect with our stories. They might not agree with our take on the experience or even want to be included. But Anne Lamott also reminds us:
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Now, of course, none of this applies when we write with the sole purpose of hurting someone. Never write to settle a score. Vindictive writing is very different than writing from your experience. It can be a slippery slope. People may find it slanderous and vindictive even if that wasn’t our intention.
Our stories are important. They deserve to be told. If you feel called to write, there’s an audience waiting. Don’t use your family as an excuse not to write. Care can more about your calling than what people will think about your writing.
Do the work. It may turn out that your story can be told well without sharing all the intimate details. But you won’t now that until you have written that first draft. If you find that you can’t tell your story without implicating others, be sure to consider their side. Even if you don’t include what you discover, it may give you insight, which always makes for better writing.
But don’t worry about any of that now. Just write.
Be fair and write well.