3 Rules on Writing About Your Family

Every person 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, especially our family, in writing our truth.

hollye-featuredFIRE SEASON.2.20.15 copyThis guest post is by Hollye Dexter. Dexter is author of the memoir Fire Season (She Writes Press, 2015) and co-editor of Dancing at the Shame Prom (Seal Press)– praised by bestselling author Gloria Feldt (former CEO of Planned Parenthood) as  “…a brilliant book that just might change your life.” Her essays and articles about women’s issues, activism and politics have been published in anthologies as well as in Maria Shriver’s Architects of Change, Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire and more. In 2003, she founded the award-winning nonprofit Art and Soul, running arts workshops for teenagers in the foster care system. She currently teaches writing workshops and works as an activist for gun violence prevention in L.A., where she lives with her husband and a houseful of kids and pets. hollyedexter.net.

1. Own your truth

I begin my book Fire Season with this note: “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.” 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.

2. 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 evil character, the reader is not going to believe it, and the story won’t work.  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, including yourself. 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.” 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.

[Who vs. Whom? Lay vs. Lie? Get all the grammar rules you need right here.]

3. Face the 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 with some people. 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: “You’re a writer. Part of your job is to be disruptive, so don’t be surprised when people are disrupted. People should be agitated. We’re in the business of unbearable feelings.”

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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3 thoughts on “3 Rules on Writing About Your Family

  1. Becky

    How much truth is required in a memoir? Such as, must you relate the actual names of others, or change the names and keep the facts as you remember them? I feel that I do have a great story to tell, yet I hesitate because I don’t want to hurt certain people. Thanks for your help!


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