December 5, 2020

Rules to Live By if You Feel Freaked Out About Writing About The People in Your Life

“Don’t show your work to any family member or friend in question until it’s ready to be published. Yes, that might take a while. That is the point. Read on.”

One thing I know from teaching memoir over the years is that memoirists freak out about writing about other people in their life. Since memoir means writing the truth, my students often ask, Isn’t revealing my true thoughts about myself exposing enough? To write about others brings up all kinds of fears: What if they sue me? Hate me? Never speak to me again? Is it really okay for me to reveal things about others?

It’s important to remember that a memoir is a story about your life, and the people in your life are “characters” you knew, loved, hated, feared, and yearned for. In real life, no one behaves perfectly.  As such, these people, whether living or dead, provided moments of growth and insight, or you wouldn’t have a story to tell. Memoir reveals the complexity of our relationships, and often our deepest conflicts.

Start Small: Create Character Sketches

You can begin to write about the people in your life even if you’re ambivalent by creating character sketches that stand alone. These are separate pieces to support you to sort out the prominent details about a person. Make a chart that includes positive and negative qualities, physical descriptions, and the most significant moments in which you interacted with this person. Chart the ups and downs, the positives and negatives, and the in-between feelings these moments engendered.

The purpose of this exercise is to take small bites of this thing called memoir, and to keep from getting too overwhelmed. Add to your chart how old you were and where the scene took place. These details will ground you in the truth of your interactions with the person and keep you focused on your story, rather than the what-if worries.

5 Rules to Turn to When You’re Freaked Out about Exposing Others 

In my experience, most memoir writers put the cart before the horse. They are stressed about what family members or friends will say, or how they’ll react, before they’ve written anything that’s ready to be read.

Rule 1. Don’t show your work to any family member or friend in question until it’s ready to be published. Yes, that might take a while. That is the point. Read on.

Rule 2. Don’t publish your book as a surprise or as revenge. Writing a memoir is an opportunity to explore your life and your feelings about your life and the people in it. If you need to write down and explore the complexities of your relationships, do it in early drafts. Write everything. Leave nothing out. Keep it private. Keep writing. Let the story reveal itself to you and you alone at first.

Rule 3. Remember that your memoir is more than “this is what happened to me.” It’s more than “this is how I was mistreated.” There are many powerful and important books about abuse, and yes, they include scenes about mistreatment, pain, sorrow, and how the author dealt with those circumstances. Sometimes these are stories of how authors coped, or came to see things differently, or even forgave (though this is not a required element). Learning something new about your insights and resolutions is the gold that readers are looking for.

Rule 4. As you write, think of the universal emotional truths in your story—and in your interactions with others. We are all humans trying to find ways to cope, and we love reading memoir because it offers a window into the lives of others. Your book, and your understanding of people and the relationships in your story, may help someone else who’s had a similar problem. As such, don’t think about how your story (and thereby your interactions with people in your story) is unique, but rather all the ways in which it’s universal.

Rule 5. If you’re worried about the ethics of what you have included in your story, or the legal ramifications, consult a literary attorney about the areas that concern you—after you’ve written a complete draft. Get legal advice about privacy laws and defamation and other sticky questions, but don’t censor your story before you get to that point. There are lots of workarounds—disclaimers, changing identifying details, and sometimes even removing entire storylines—but again, putting the cart before the horse when it comes to writing your truth only stifles your ability to tell your story.

To write well you must feel free to write your story! Pull out all the stops. Don’t let doubts and fears keep you from writing your memoir. Anyone who’s written a memoir has had to confront these fears and doubts, and each person decides how much to include, what tone to use, and how to handle the relationship with friends or family while writing, and later while publishing.


If this subject matter interests you, we invite you to dive deeper as part of our 6-consecutive-week ELEVATE YOUR MEMOIR BOOT CAMP starting on September 22, 2020.

In Week 1, our guest teacher Claire Bidwell Smith, author of The Rules of Inheritance, will talk memorists through what to consider when writing about the people in your life. The session includes best practices, examples from other memoirists who’ve done this well, and an opportunity to do some of your own writing and sharing as well.

Check out our BOOT CAMP (September 22-October 27). We hope you’ll join us for this topic and more—and discover new ways to ELEVATE YOUR MEMOIR.   

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