Many of us have difficult chapters of our own and family stories that prefer to lurk in the closets of our memories. How do we get them on paper and share them with others? This is an overview on the decisions writers face.
What are difficult chapters?
Your answer may differ greatly from mine. Or from your cousin’s.
If you and your relatives are comfortable in the family skin—even the hard, tanned skins of the past, these sensitive subjects might be far and few between. For instance, my neighbor recently found out her ancestor was a jewel thief and smuggler. It gives her pause, but it’s not a particularly painful for her to explore and talk about. In fact, it’s sparked some interesting family conversations.
However, when we encounter morally questionable (or even reprehensible) episodes of the past, the decisions of how to write about these difficult chapters become murky.
Should we write about the difficult chapters at all? Who will we offend? Hurt?
Seldom can we make that decision in a vacuum. Family members are the ones that influence how openly we can write. Even well-meaning relatives can pressure us to maintain the family façade and skirt around the truth.
Look at what makes the story problematic to write.
Why is it difficult? Perhaps:
- The story is emotionally difficult to process, re-live through our writing.
- Sharing the events of the past could cause actual harm to others or could fracture relationships.
- The episode is otherwise uncomfortable to face.
In my mind, number 3 is easier to process than the others, so let’s look at that before we look at where to find guidance for situations 1 and 2.
Factors contributing to our reluctance or procrastination to write about these difficult chapters include guilt and complicity, whether misplaced or legitimate. For instance, we might have a fear of the things people will say. “The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree…” echoes through our minds.
One litmus test for that is do you really care what people who would say those things think? Are they important to you? Are their opinions?
If you met a child whose parents had committed a crime, would you hold the child responsible for the adults’ actions? Zoom back in time a little. What if the child had yet to be born when said crime took place? Are they culpable?
Now look back at yourself and the situation you feel uncomfortable about. Are you responsible?
Use that word. Blameworthy takes you out of the realm of feelings and prompts a more objective analysis of the situation.
Your answer might be yes, because sometimes we are. Do you ready to own it publicly? Do you need to say some person-to-person mea culpas first? Also consider, your writing maybe helpful to others in similar circumstances. (Read also How Your Writing is Therapeutic for Others.)
Memoir writing guides can help.
In addition to great family history resources, I find guides for and by professional memoirists particularly helpful for navigating through questions about the difficult chapters of both family and personal stories. Because they are targeted at committed writers looking to share their stories with the world, they examine the hard questions in depth.
You can find online memoir groups—even Facebook groups where you can pose your questions and get feedback. One of my go to resources is Joanna Penn at The Creative Penn. Her article Writing Tips: How To Write A Memoir About A Difficult Subject confronts the questions of if you’re ready to write the story and whether it’s likely to cause harm.
Likewise, Laurie Hertzel really nails the question that keeps many of us up at night in her article, But Will They Love Me When It’s Done? Writing about Family in Memoir. She offers strategies that she and other memoirists have used.
Emotional advisors can help you cope with your story so you can tell it with compassion and truth.
If you’re having trouble processing an event, a professional therapist can help you gain perspective and understanding.
However, many of us have great counselors in our circle of confidants. People who know you and the “characters” in your stories make terrific sounding boards.
Your Turn: How did you deal with difficult chapters?
Have you had trouble writing about difficult chapters of your own or a family story? How did you make your decision about what to include and how to write it? What guides were helpful to you? Please share your comments below so others can learn as well.