“What about writing about friends and family?”
Some version of this question comes toward the end of almost every personal essay class I teach. We’ve already discussed interrogation and discovery as we write. We’ve thought about beginnings and endings. We’ve considered scene, summary, and reflection. We’ve explored where to find ideas. We’ve spent time engaged with various writing prompts. Now in these final moments of class, participants will raise their hands and ask questions that may not fit neatly into everything else I’ve shared.
“What about writing about the people we love?”
If we write about our experiences, at times, these stories will intersect with others, often people we like and love. Perhaps friends and family. Maybe spouses and children. Sometimes teachers and neighbors. Even co-workers and our favorite barista. These people show up in our work, and their voices speak into our journeys of discovery on the page.
We are complicated. The people in our lives are complicated. The way we relate to and interact with the people in our lives is complicated. I think these writers really want to know: “Can I ensure my family and friends will engage positively with their place in my stories?” or “What is mine to tell and what is not?” People are searching for rules, boundaries, and outside opinions as they consider whether or not to share a story publicly. I understand because I have certainly been in their position.
Usually, I encourage the class to first write the story without thinking about other people’s responses. There will be time later to consider this concern. Trepidation about how a loved one might react to our words can often function as an internal critical voice. In the presence of that voice, we can struggle to write the words.
However, once we’ve written our story, the weight of the concern remains. How do we tell the truth of what we’ve lived but also honor and care about the people we love?
Here, I offer a few thoughts for after the story is on the page. These ideas are by no means some sort of checklist. Instead, these three areas might help you consider the true stories you want to tell. And the impact those true stories may have on people you love. In addition, I offer questions to consider as you are thinking about your unique situation.
When others show up in your work, consider why they are part of the story and what you hope to accomplish by including them. Sometimes, of course, these answers are straightforward. For example, a sister is part of a story because she was there. How she responded to the situation changed an aspect of how the narrator views life. However, if you’re writing about another person to showcase a particular behavior—elevating them in a glowing light or exacting some form of revenge—well, that may not really be a story.
Questions you might consider:
1. What is my goal? Why have I come to the page to tell this story and to tell this story now?
2. Am I writing purely from a place of (fill in the blank with the emotion: anger, sadness, guilt, shame, etc.)?
3. How does the presence of this person in the writing serve the work?
Power dynamics in relationships are constantly at play, sometimes in clear, noticeable ways (think child and parent, employee and employer, marginalized and dominant culture). However, these dynamics often exist in many other ways. Even as writers, we can yield forms of power because we are in positions where we can craft stories about other people.
When I write about others, I like to consider the possible existence of a power dynamic that skews in my direction. Such a power dynamic doesn’t necessarily prevent me from sharing a particular story. However, it can impact how I shape the story, how many details I reveal, what tone and voice I bring to the page as I write, the words I select, etc.
Questions you might consider:
1. What are the power dynamics between the person I mention and me? (there may be multiple) Am I in a position of power?
2. What responsibility might I have toward what I reveal about this other person because of my position of power/the power dynamics?
I rarely think you need permission to write a story from your life that includes the presence of others. However, it matters to me that the people I care about know when they are part of my work. As a result, with my close family members (my parents, my sister, and my husband), I will invite them to read essays where they appear. I ask them to share if they have concerns about what I’ve written. If they have concerns, we have a conversation, and I (note that I did not write we) determine if I will make changes and, if yes, what changes. At this point in my life, though ,I find that writing in a way where my family feels a sense of respect from me is more important to me than the story I tell. (This may not be the reality for everyone).
In addition, I will often not use names or identifying details without permission for friends and other family who intersect with my words. If their presence reaches the scale of close family members, I will invite them to read and share concerns as I would with close family members.
Finally, with my children, their presence will, at times, appear in my writing. However, I generally no longer write essays that center around elements of their story and experiences. I’ve decided that they still aren’t at an age where they will accurately voice concerns that may be their concerns in ten years.
Questions you might consider:
1. What do I think about letting the other person read my words and raise concerns? If this is a problem for me, am I comfortable pursuing publication in the absence of this conversation?
2. If someone has concerns, how will I handle the situation?
These policies have worked for me and helped me identify boundaries for how I write about others. However, every writer is on a journey to find their particular boundaries and policies—that may or may not change over time. I offer these thoughts as additional ideas as you discern what works for you, your relationships, and your writing life.
Please see the following for a variety of opinions and a larger discussion about ethics when writing about other people.
“Ethical Advice for Writing About Friends and Family” by Elisa Gabbert
“Writing About Others” by Annette Gendler
For more on how Patrice approached writing a fictionalized version of a personal story, please listen to her interview on Episode 421 of the DIY MFA Radio Podcast!
Patrice Gopo is an award-winning essayist. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Catapult, Creative Nonfiction, and Charlotte Magazine. She is the author of All the Colors We Will See, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her debut picture book is All the Places We Call Home. Patrice lives with her family in North Carolina.To connect with Patrice, you can find her on her website and subscribe to her newsletter here.