In my last post, Questions About Writing About Your Life or Your Family? I asked you to let me know any questions you have about writing about your life or your family. One site visitor responded with a dilemma, one that many life and family story writers share. (I know because I get similar questions in the life and family writing classes I teach—and I experienced the same doubts in writing my own memoirs.)
How can a writer change details about people to keep them from being identified while still staying true to the events that happened (locations; names) and if it seems unlikely to be able to keep people from being identified (I only have one set of parents, for example) how much do you seek permission when writing about someone vs seeking forgiveness and understanding after the fact. Do you have advice on this front?
This is always tough for those of use who write about our lives.
In memoir, which should be more about you than about others, you can try writing: “a friend of mine,” or “a woman I met in Georgia,” or for example, concerning a sister: “someone close to me,” or “a family member.” You can also make location vague. If your story took place near Boston, you can write “a suburb of Boston,” or “a town near Boston,” or simply “on the East Coast,” unless the identity of a specific location is absolutely necessary, in which case you could state the location but disguise other elements of the story.
In family history, you are right: you only have one set of parents, so they will know you are writing about them—if you intend to circulate or publish your story. It’s all right to let them know in advance what you intend to write, and ask how they feel about it. You can also ask them to clarify anything they feel you got wrong. I’m not in favor of asking for permission, but only you can decide whether or not you will change your story based on their comments.
Family Troubles: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family is a book that might help you. You’d be surprised at some of the reactions family members have, not all of them negative. But remember, if you are just writing for yourself or to present to a class where a confidentiality rule is in force, you don’t need anyone’s permission about what you write.
If you plan to look for a larger audience for your book, you might follow the model that some authors have adopted. They wait to see if a publisher is interested in their story, and then tell their family members about it.
Finally, keep in mind that everyone has a different tolerance for generating fallout within a family. Some of us shy away from it, while others of us brazen it out.
Another excellent book to check out when writing about family is Women Writing on Family
Just stumbled on something that you might like to read: I Texted My Exes About Putting Them in My Memoir & It didn’t Go As Planned.
I hope this is all helpful to you. Send me your comments and let me know.
If you need help writing about your life or your family, just check out my Testimonials and get in touch through my Contact tab. I’m knowledgeable and very easy to work with.
Very helpful. This is something I always struggle with in my memoir writing.
Lynette Benton says
Thanks for letting me know this post was helpful to you, Sandra. Another one’s on its way answering another site visitor question.
Sal Ferreira says
“In memoir, which should be more about you than about others, you can try writing:”…….I found this helpful in that it may be what I need to organize where I want to go in my writing. If I write about myself as a core, I can then jump off and bring in the history of other family members but in relation to myself. Right now I have piles of disconnected information, rambling stories that are interesting but not connected. You have given me much to think about.
Lynette Benton says
Glad to hear from you, Sal and know you’re working on puling together your family stories. I like your idea of using yourself as the center, then bringing in other family members in relation to yourself. I am thinking of writing a post that explains how those who have tons of fragments can get them organized to create a full story. What do you think?
Thanks for this comment—very helpful!