Other people are inevitably part of our personal story. How do you write about them without destroying relationships you value?
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them they should have behaved better.” — Anne Lamott
I knew this Anne Lamott quotation long before I had read “Bird by Bird” or any of her other works. It’s a popular one in most writing communities and I don’t disagree with it. We have the right to tell our stories and I’ll even go a step further and say we have the responsibility to. Still, we all know the quality of any given person’s behavior is subjective. Whether we perceive someone as right or wrong is often based on how we feel about them in general. Especially in this day and age when most publishing is widely available on the Internet, writing about loved ones can be a dangerous game. Once something is said, it cannot be unsaid so how do you decide what’s worth saying?
A while back I wanted to prove a point using an anecdote my mom told me about her own mother. I called my mother asking her to refresh me on the details of the story and she did. I then told her why I was asking and she asked me not to include the story.
“Why not?” I asked. “ Do you think it makes her look…bad?”
I, of course, didn’t.
“Not necessarily,” my mother said. “It’s a sensitive topic. You never know who might read it. Plus, it was a different time.”
I frequently share my Medium posts to Facebook, so the people she’s worried about me offending are family members I’ve connected with on there. In this instance I agreed with my mother, sharing the anecdote was not worth upsetting people I care about. Though I didn’t think the story made my grandmother look bad, it wasn’t worth giving readers the opportunity to judge her. I believed enough in the point I was trying to prove to allowed to stand on its own without an anecdote and it worked out just fine.
What about other instances though, when the person you want to write about has done some thing directly to you? How do we as storytellers manage to tell the truth without isolating ourselves?
Well, if the person you want to write about is still alive and you still have respect for them, you can reach out to them directly and discuss whatever story you want to tell before it’s published. Because they’re a human being, you should consider their perspective even if ultimately you still have opposing views on what occurred. This is not a moral standpoint; our stories are stronger when we don’t turn people into monsters. Maybe you’ll find out that you see things the same way and this could result in you getting an overdue apology. But if they do see it differently from you, which is most likely the case, at least you’ll have given them the respect of making them aware that this story will be out there.
If the person you want to write about has passed on and you still have respect for them, then it’s not their feelings you need to consider. In the case of family there are likely still other members who may have feelings about your words. You can reach out to them and see what they think, whether you decide to take that into serious consideration or not. Again, it’s about the courtesy.
The question you want to ask yourself is who benefits from me sharing this story? A few weeks ago a young woman shared her story about allegedly being sexually coerced by a popular party host. Her story encouraged other women to come forward and the host was fired. Her story helped both herself and other people. It was worth sharing.
The story about my grandmother is one that will stay in the vault. I respect my mother’s opinion on it and value my family’s peace of mind. It’s not my story to tell anyway since I have no direct involvement. All writers who craft personal narratives have to make this decision at some point and it is one of the most important ones we have to make. What needs to be told and what is better off left alone or told by someone else?