Writing About Family

Posted by Sarah Steil, GD Fiction Section Head for 5.1Writing About Family

My oldest sister, Dani, leans over me, brushes her hair behind her ear as she hands me her laptop. “It’s not very good,” she blushes, “I wrote it in a day.” Dani has been telling me for weeks about her summer writing class, in which she has begun to place her childhood memories on paper. I have spent my weekend-long college break in her city apartment, waiting for the moment when she’d cave and allow me to read her stories about our lives.

In the story she offers me now, she is nine years old and watching me as a baby. At only ten months old, I scoot around our living room in a walker, hands and eyes wandering, cheeks smeared in dried yogurt. Dani, a young girl, looks over at me and has a sudden and horrifying thought: one day, we will both die.

As I sit at Dani’s kitchen table now, I consider her depiction of us, smile as I realize she remembers years I wasn’t old enough to. Her stories follow us through two decades, and I realize she’s always been watching, taking notes on our shared experiences.

It’s not until I read her short essay on a family fight when I was fifteen that I object. My eyebrows are furrowed as I reach its end. I don’t make an appearance in her rendition of the event. I turn to her. “I remember this,” I say. “I was there for this.”

Dani shrugs, frowns. “I don’t remember you being there.”

I shake my head, frustrated. “I was sitting next to you. I could probably tell you what you were wearing.”

She purses her lips. “I don’t know. I guess you’ll have to write about it and we’ll compare,” she laughs.

My sister and I frequently write about the same experiences, and sometimes we swear the other has gotten it wrong—I didn’t include Dani in a story about my sixteenth birthday, for example, which she argues is out of laziness and I swear is true to my memory. Perhaps the greatest and worst aspect of writing about my family is that I always have someone who can confirm or deny what I’ve written, someone who is equally qualified to write about our life.

So, who is right? How do either of us get it on paper when our memories may never overlap perfectly?

When I write about our life and family, I reflect on a keen (albeit a little harsh) bit of advice from Writer’s Digest: write like you are an orphan. I record my memories as honestly and truthfully as my mind is able, ignoring the nagging thoughts: Will my sister like this depiction of her? Should I avoid this part? What if she remembers things differently?  As I write, I do not consider my sister’s feelings (sorry, Dani!). Only after I have gotten an experience on paper do I ask these questions and edit, edit, edit.

An essential part of writing about family, then, is in editing: after I am able to understand my ideas and memories of a certain event, I can interview my sister, get her perspective on things, revisit how I originally depicted the family members involved.

The most difficult part of writing about family is in recording events that may have been especially hard, uncomfortable, or simply unflattering. I have realized that writing the truth means feelings may get hurt from time to time. At the same time, I remind myself that stories about family should be fair to those involved and should not actively seek to hurt anyone. And when I write about events that may make certain family members upset, I revisit a vital piece of literary advice I have adopted from writer Anne Lamott: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”

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