Michele Leavitt

What will my family think?

Memoir writers ruminate over questions like that. We write about our own pasts, and that often means writing about family members and spilling old secrets. Some family members want the secrets kept in the dark. If the memoirist reveals them, she risks losing the love and security of family.

Secrets fuel the plots of many memoirs. The revelation of secrets is often satisfying to readers because the revelation resolves other plot points. Example: Memoirist “A” never fit in with her family; the secret revealed is that she’s adopted. Memoirist “B” is wildy promiscuous as a teenager; the secret revealed is that he was sexually abused by the parish priest.

Some memoirists wait until “everyone is dead” before telling their stories because they don’t want to risk hurting others, but that approach has risks, too. Waiting until everyone is dead means there’s no opportunity to fact-check, or to get the other side of a story.

Waiting in general, though, is a good idea. Most writers need distance from a subject before they can write about it with grace and insight. That seems especially true if the subject is some sort of betrayal. Dashing off a piece when anger and resentment are still burning usually makes for a story no one wants to read. And waiting gives the writer time to make connections between one event and another.

So how to write about family without risking rejection? In addition to waiting for the story to mature, I’ve had positive results from telling people I’m writing about them. I’ve been surprised to learn that a lot of people in my family want to be written about. I don’t ask family members to pre-approve my work — decisions about the work itself are mine — but I do ask if they do or don’t want me to tag them on social media once a piece is published.

About a year ago, I told my niece BeeBee I was writing an essay about her. I’ve witnessed some of her journey from hyperactive kid to addicted, convicted, gun-toting meth dealer to personal salvation and inner peace. Her story is much bigger than me, but I wanted to tell a piece of it.

“What’s the essay about?” she asked.

That was a hard question for me; I never really know what a piece of writing is about until it’s close to being finished. After a minute, though, I said “It’s about how much I love you.” And I knew that was the truth even though I wasn’t sure at that point which events would make it into the story, and what its theme would be.

There’s no magic formula for writing without risk of being scorned or disowned. Everyone’s family is different and has its own rules of secret-keeping. I suspect, though, that the more compassion you can bring to a story, even toward those who have made mistakes or have betrayed you (including your younger self), the lower your risk of being shunned. Also, the more compassion and understanding you write with, the better your story will be. People read memoir to make sense of their own lives, and to make their lives better.

I’ve written a lot, and hope to write more, about my family and our crazy antics and struggles. Many of us are addicts; many are convicted felons. All of us have weaknesses and have made mistakes.

The brilliant James Baldwin said it best in “Sonny’s Blues,” his story about two brothers: “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

I’m lucky that my family honors storytelling, and that they know only one way to love: the unconditional way. When I write about my family, I want readers to feel the light in all our darkness.