The Struggle of Writing About Family

By Jessica Marinaro

When we write something about ourselves we open up the world to our life. While that can be a liberating experience, it is also littered with roadblocks. One such roadblock that many creative nonfiction writers deal with regularly is the struggle to write essays about family that are genuine to your own experience. Writing about family members is never easy, and more than one problem tends to arise when writers consider including their family members into their narratives.

A big issue that comes about when writing about family members is that they become immortalized in one specific way. This can be an even bigger problem when family members are main characters in an essay in which they are not portrayed in the most positive manner. For example, if you write a story about how your sister betrayed you in the past, readers are going to remember her for her betrayal. Things that happen outside of the story do not exist to a reader; they don’t have the context about who your sister is, what led her to betray you, or how you made up in the end unless you give it to them. That is why writing stories like this can be a little tricky when they involve real people, especially real people who are likely to read your work (and likely to get offended by it).

Issues like this can lead to the writer holding back out of fear that their honesty might make someone “look bad.” I know this fear intimately. I have personal experience writing a piece that paints one of my family members in a less than flattering light. Last semester I wrote a short story about my religious trauma and how that intersected with me discovering my sexuality growing up, called “A Portrait of Jesus.” At certain spots this piece echoes hurtful things that I remember my father saying to me or insinuating to me throughout my childhood, with one specific scene that depicts him as a very heartless figure. Of course, in reality my relationship with my father is much more complicated than any one essay could depict, but the heart of what I wrote is all true. He is not a heartless person; however, what he had said to me, how it affected me, and how it still affects me to this day, are a truth that is not up for debate no matter how much it may offend him. These two “truths” can coexist.

Other problems arise when we consider the fact that memory and art are very subjective. When combining the two, the waters are not always crystal clear. For example, two people may remember the same event happening entirely differently, but that doesn’t make either of their experiences any less true. Readers also bring their own unique experience, background, and understanding to a piece, further shaping it into something that might even be a different interpretation than the author intended. This does not make the reader’s interpretation less valid either. People think that because a creative essay is based in truth that they are being sworn into oath when they chose to write about their life, but the fact is that the truth can adopt many different shades when we consider just how malleable art based on memory really is.

At the end of the day the most important thing is that writers stay true to their own experience. Objective writing is a farce; objective truth may even be a farce (depending on who you ask). Something that many creative nonfiction writers must come to terms with is the fact that the way they remember a story from their life–all the sadness or joy or confusion it caused them at the time–is their truth. Writers must hold on to their truths and be confident in them, because at the end of the day it’s the story that they can tell best.

Comments Off on The Struggle of Writing About Family

Filed under Blog