It’s pretty much That Time of Year again.
Yeah, you guessed it: the season of family holidays. When the biggest thing on your mind is how your family is driving you absolutely freakin’ nuts and you can’t think of anything else to blog about but you swore that with NaBloPoMo kicking off you’d write at least something every day. (Bless you, children. I can’t. I’m devoting a certain amount of time every day to various writing-related activities and calling it my NaBloNoNo contribution.)
So with that in mind, let’s talk about those family stories. And actually, I’m gonna go ahead and throw in a content warning for what follows, because I need to be able to discuss how bad family stories can get and whether we should tell them, but you might need the freedom to not engage with that content at this time of year (or any other). I’m not going to get graphic, but I don’t know where your boundaries are. So, yeah. If you’ve got a traumatic story, you’ve probably given this some thought anyway. If someone in your family has a traumatic story that you’ve been thinking of telling, please start thinking about the stuff I’m gonna discuss here.
Now, I’m not a super big fan of Anne Lamott- I think she’s problematic at best. But she did have a great quote:
You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.
It’s great advice, and very freeing, but look. Most of us face real world considerations. My mom reads my blog. Nothing really ever leaves the internet. Your kids will be able to find your writing, your parents will, and your creepy uncle John will. (No, seriously, I can not even with that guy and IDGAF that he doesn’t come to Thanksgiving dinner anymore.) So for this month’s nonfiction knowhow we’re going to delve into a really sensitive subject: What should you be thinking about when you tell family stories, and which stories are yours to tell?
is this my story?
Before you start telling stories about your family and friends – yes, even if they’re not your friends anymore but you secretly look them up on Facebook and take a terrible delight in how bad their pictures look – ask yourself if the stories you’re telling are yours.
What does that mean? Well, if you’re not in the story at all, it’s probably not yours. If you’re in the story but the majority of events happen to someone else, that’s probably not yours either.
On the other hand, if you’re the central figure in the story rather than a passive observer, that’s likely your story.
who could this hurt?
Not all stories have to be yours, but whether you’re telling your story or someone else’s, you should take a hard look at who might be hurt by the story being made public. And when you’re telling someone else’s story, you need to either have their input on whether it hurts them or you need to draw that boundary as safely on the side of not doing harm as you can.
‘K, though, let’s begin by saying that upset and hurt aren’t the same thing. You don’t have to not tell the story about when your cousin shoved you down on the new patio at Thanksgiving (and your elbow bled everywhere and the whole family spent the entire day trying to hide all that blood from Grandma) just because Grandma might have some feelings about having been lied to twenty years ago. On the other hand, if you’re about to out someone else as a survivor of sexual abuse and you haven’t talked to them about it, that could have real and immediate consequences for them in their actual life, from employment to relationships. I don’t care how good your story is about how watching Uncle Ernie slide his hand under your cousin’s skirt made you feel uncomfortable. That is not your story, it could hurt your cousin, and you need to talk to her about whether she’s ok with you publishing it before you even start writing.
should you care?
Notice in the example above I said the story about Uncle Ernie might hurt your cousin and you should get her input on that. On the other hand, even though theoretically being revealed as a child molester might have some real world consequences for Uncle Ernie, he’s had all the control over whether this story is told that he gets: the option to not have taken that action in the first place. That brings us back to our Anne Lamott quote and to the difference between hurt and upset.
It’s generally upsetting to people when others find out about their bad acts or embarrassing moments. Once you’ve identified who might prefer you not tell your story, it’s necessary to balance the importance of telling the story against the possibility of damage. In the case of Uncle Ernie, your cousin might be ready for everyone to know why she doesn’t attend family events and how she still wonders who knew and didn’t say anything. But she might not, and having that story out there could be traumatic to her as well, especially when it wasn’t her fault in the first place.
In the case of the pushing cousin (that’s the worst Nancy Drew book title ever), it might be a little embarrassing to your cousin, but maybe Grandma’s dead anyway now and you were all kids and you don’t blame him and intend to just make the story light and humorous. There’s a minimal possibility of damage, even if your cousin (who btw also had the option to not push you down on the patio, not that I’m resentful or anything) is embarrassed about it.
what’s my audience?
When you put a story on your blog, you don’t have a lot of control over who’s going to read it. You can, however, take a pretty good guess. My mom reads my blog, but my dad doesn’t (I don’t think) and I know no extended family members do. Theoretically if something I wrote went actually viral it might show up on someone’s radar, but for the most part my family has tiny, quiet Facebook feeds. So I have a relative lot of freedom to tell stories because the only person I really have to worry about is my mom. Even so, there are definitely things that I have chosen not to talk about because they affect her and I know that at one point she showed the blog to her boss so it’s possible people at her work might see if I talk about how, say, insanity runs in my maternal line like we were a Victorian novel. (I know, big surprise, right?) So since that’s not my story to tell, it could do harm, and the potential audience is exactly the one I’d be worried about seeing the content, I save it for humorous asides in posts about completely different things like I just did there.
If the people whose feelings you’re worried about are your audience, you’ll probably want to draw a tighter line around those stories, or save them and tell them in pieces as fiction or poetry if you need to explore their boundaries. On the other hand, if you have a reason to tell the story that outweighs your concern about their feelings, and you’re aware of the potential for your story to spread, go ahead and tell it.
can’t you just give me a summary with a few clear rules?
Sorry. The rules for writing about people who have been close to us, or about things that affect people who are still close to us, are as delicate as our relationships with those people. Still, if I had to write a quick summary, I’d tell you to ask yourself: what is the likely result of me telling this story about and to the people involved and reading, and am I ok with that?