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Writing About Family

When writing about family matters, some particular approaches can be helpful

Many writers who also engage in regular journaling find themselves drawn to writing about their personal experiences in the form of articles and a form of writing called the “personal essay,” a piece of literary non-fiction that share an experience of growth, challenge, or triumph through the lens of one’s own personal experience.

Though sharing your own personal experiences can be a deeply moving endeavor and can reach readers who find resonance in your writing, it also comes with some particular challenges that other forms or writing don’t necessarily have. It is inevitable that, when writing about our own personal lives, other people are going to become a part of the story. After all, most of our lives are punctuated by the interactions we have, and the experiences we share, with friends, family, co-workers, and others. While when we write an article about a new discovery about a species of bugs, for example, we may not have to worry about what the bugs will think about what we wrote about them, when we write about people we do, and that concern is even larger when those people are people who we share our lives with.

Writing about family can be fulfilling and effective, but it is something you should approach differently than other types of writing. Below are some things to consider.

Your kids might read this someday

Your four-year-old may not be able to read today, which may make it feel particularly freeing to write about their deepest fears, personal experiences, and the way they’ve challenged you as a parent. When writing about our kids, though, it’s important to remember that someday they will be able to read and they may just take an interest in finding what we wrote — especially if it’s about them. Before putting anything out into the world, it’s important for you to ask yourself whether you would want your child to read what you’re saying about them in the future. It’s also important to consider whether you are divulging more than they themselves may choose to divulge were they be to of age to make such decisions for themselves.

The key to writing about your own experiences is you

Speaking of wondering whether you’re divulging too much of your kids’ personal experiences — more than they might choose to share themselves — no matter who you’re including in your stories, it’s important to remember that first and foremost, a personal essay from your perspective is about you. That means your focus should be on your perceptions, your feelings, and your takeaways. Talking about your friends and family’s experiences is difficult to do while still being honest, because you can’t really know what they were thinking, feeling, or experiencing in the moment. You can really only know what they said to you and, more importantly, what you experienced internally when they said it.

It’s okay to ask for permission

In some forms of writing, you aren’t supposed to share your writing with your subjects. For example, as a reporter, if I’m reporting about the governor, I’m not supposed to send my article to the governor for his approval before I put it in a newspaper. That goes against the tenets of a free press. Personal essay writing, however, is different. While you should still remain committed to representing the truth as you understand it, it’s not out of the question to run a draft by someone who is in it and ask what they think.

As the famous essayist and memoirist David Sedaris, who is well-known for writing about his family, says, “Whenever I write about someone in my family, I give it to them first. And I say, ‘Is there anything you want me to change or get rid of?’” By bringing your family members into the process, you save yourself, and them, the potential pain of a surprise when it’s too late because something is already in print.

If it doesn’t feel good, it may not be

We can usually tell when we’re crossing a line. If you’re writing about someone else and feel like you’re delving into gossip territory or are writing for the wrong reasons — i.e. to settle an old grudge — you may feel something in your gut that tells you that maybe you aren’t doing the right thing. Listen to your instincts. Just because we can write about something publicly doesn’t necessarily mean we should. If you aren’t clear on your intentions or if you feel weird about writing something about someone else, it may be best to steer clear of doing it.

We hope that the tips above will help you as you make sense of your own personal experiences, the people they involved, and how you want to write about them. Happy writing!

Lauren Harkawik
Author

Lauren Harkawik

Lauren Harkawik is a journalist, essayist, and fiction writer based in Vermont. You can read her writing on her website.

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