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Writing

Memoir Writing Tips: How to Write About Family

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

Sometimes memoir writing involves exposing dark secrets or uncomfortable truths. Sometimes these stories come from difficult times with loved ones, best friends, or family members. Choosing to write about your own family’s history can be a sensitive issue, and while there isn’t a perfect method, there are certain ways to write family stories that can (hopefully) mitigate the possible awkwardness that may follow.

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6 Tips for Writing About Your Family

If you’ve decided to write a nonfiction account of your and your family’s story, here are a few writing tips to keep in mind:

  1. Prepare your family. Having an honest conversation with your whole family about how and why you’re sharing this personal narrative may help relieve a little of the stress that comes with writing about family. There’s no guarantee it will go over well, but prepping your family will also brace you for their reaction to your writing project. Already knowing how it will be received (even if negatively) by family before they read it for the first time may help mitigate any emotional surprises that will arise.
  2. Provide background. Everyone’s life story is different—not everyone grows up in a happy family or with their mom and dad—but it’s important to recognize that human beings are often the products of their upbringing. It’s easy to paint others as the bad guys in your personal life, especially when they’ve caused you pain. However, when sharing these difficult life experiences with others, those family relationships also need context. Every family history has its own trauma, mental illness, or other pivotal life event that changes who people are or how they behave. Writing compassionately about your family life can convey your own story that is honest, yet still fair and understanding, rather than vilifying.
  3. Interview your family. Sit down with willing members of your family and ask them any relevant questions you may have regarding their history. You can fill in any mysteries of your family tree or figure out how estranged relationships emerged. You can discover where certain family traditions originated from or how particular relationships between primary and extended family members really were. Hearing another family member’s point of view or specific memory regarding real life events can possibly fill in any gaps in your own knowledge, paving the way for your narrative writing, while also providing key information for future generations.
  4. Choose stories that represent your theme. Early on in your writing process, you may find yourself making a list of anecdotes about your family you plan on telling. However, a single memoir could not fit every story from a single lifetime, even if you come from a small family. Choose the stories and memories that pertain to the underlying message you want the audience to understand about your family. If your memoir is about transitioning into adult life while dealing with your younger brother’s addiction, keep the stories focused on and around that period of time in your life. Your theme can help keep your narrative on track, and also keep your memoir from becoming too long-winded.
  5. Write under a pseudonym. A pseudonym is a fake name used by a writer when writing and publishing their work in order to protect themselves, as well as for a variety of other reasons. If you’re too afraid of the backlash from family, you can always write your memoir under an assumed name. While you may not get the recognition for it, it’s a possible solution for those who only want to get their story out there, and don’t care about the credit.
  6. Revise wisely. The first draft of your nonfiction memoir makes a compelling read—but is it entirely true? Did you write a real and fair representation of all the family members involved? The events don’t have to be written in chronological order, but you should do your due diligence in ensuring that the stories told are accurately portrayed to the best of your ability.

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