On writing about personal experiences

Why did you have to write about that moment?

A friend of mine wrote and published online a moving essay about her sister’s death, and this is the response she got from a family member.  My friend did some soul-searching afterwards, trying to find an answer.  She reported the question to me the other day and in my usual compassionate way, I said, “That’s a stupid damned question.”  She had to write about that moment because that’s what writers do.  They write about moments like that and illuminate something of our shared humanity when they do it.


But I didn’t think it was a stupid damned question because the answer is self evident.  It wasn’t, in fact, a question at all.  It was a criticism and a judgment.  You shouldn’t have written about that is really what this person was saying.  So, if that’s the point this person wants to make, then that’s what this person should say to my friend.  Kiss my ass is the response I coached her to practice.    


Of course, whenever we write about other people, we have to wrestle with the question of whether it’s fair and how they’ll feel about it, but a beautiful tribute to a dead sister isn’t exactly bitter libel.


When I write about my personal life, I usually write about my writing or about my daughter.  When I write about my daughter, I sometimes describe her challenges.  I try to do it as honestly as possible, but my purpose isn’t to talk about her differences, it’s to emphasize how she teaches me to be a better person through our relationship.  If I end up having to criticize someone else to make a point, I do it without naming the people involved and without giving the kind of identifying information that would make them immediately recognizable.  This is because I know I’m only presenting my side of the story and these other people won’t get a chance to tell their side. 


There are whole categories of experiences I don’t write about because I can’t figure out how to do it fairly, and fairness matters to me.  On the other hand, I occasionally make off-hand comments about my ex-husband that do not always cast him in the most flattering light (hey, he’s an ex for a reason).  I wouldn’t even have been aware of this tendency except that the other day he mentioned that he’d read an essay I posted on my blog.  He quoted the offending passage at me with the lift of his brow, and I said, “Uh, it would probably be a good thing for our relationship if you stopped reading my blog.”


Fortunately, he doesn’t get all twisted out of shape over these things (he’s had plenty of time to get used to me), but it reminded me of the power we have when we tell our stories.  We have to use that power wisely, and not gratuitously, but we also can’t keep quiet just because we might hurt someone’s feelings.


What are your rules of thumb for writing about your personal experience?


  1. Great question, Jennifer!

    I'm blanking on the source of something I just saw recently where the writer was talking about putting relatives and friends sort of "on notice" that of course, everything they did/said might be written about! (Apologies are due to whomever I'm citing… it's lost.) On the one hand, that's what we do, and it's a core way of both expressing ourselves and often, expressing our observations, attempting to improve or change the world (or our ex-spouses), etc. In fiction we create characters that at least start out as clones of people we've known. (Or blends; lately I'm having a challenging time because one of my fictional characters is based on two different guys I've known… unfortunately, these two guys were probably temperamental antagonists, so it's a bit of a slog.)

    On the other hand, some of my nearest and dearest, including my spouse, are rather self-effacing, shy, quiet types who really don't like it, and a part of me wants to respect that. Even being mentioned favorably may bother some people quite a bit.

    For instance, my wife basically wrote a whole chapter of my just-finished CIG book, since the chapter was on her area of expertise; but she remained adamant that she NOT get credit, NOT be mentioned, much less get some kind of co-authorship deal that I wanted to arrange for her. Had to make a big deal of her contributions and this refusal in the acknowledgments to even get the thing finished up ethically.

    Another example: I recall once having had a therapy client who had the misfortune of knowing and sleeping with a "famous author" (in that NY Times circle of literary fiction writers nobody reads but everybody writes about)… among other offenses, he told me he once discovered a new book of hers in which his sexual behavior and even his, um, nether parts were clearly, distinctly portrayed. (And not glowingly, which made him rather sad.) (I can preserve his privacy in even mentioning it, I'm sure, because the odds are that every book ever published which has any sex scenes in it is probably stocked with the nether parts of an actual person, often someone who discovered and had some feelings about seeing their "parts" displayed.)

    All I can personally suggest is some kind of balance and caution… unless, of course, you're describing a person you despise or, in my current project, an evil corporation that I've known and hated personally… then all bets are off.

  2. Writing about family is a recipe for disaster, and yet I keep doing it, because that's what I do to figure out my life–that includes trying to understand my family.

    However, it doesn't mean I have to share what I write with them. And that's a hard lesson because I often want to. Yet, it has never failed to bite me in the ass. Stand offs have occured. Lines have been drawn.

    My interpretation will always be different than anyone elses, and family members often find this shocking. It jabs at the family illusion that we are all the same in thought and duty. "What happens in the family stays in the family" is a common motto. Or, if we just pretend it's fine, it is. Or, even more popular, "what will the neighbors think?"

    What ever we do is interpreted as a reflection on our parents. My mother hates that I write. She sees it as a breech of trust. Very dangerous stuff.

    You talk about fairness in writing, and that's kind, but it won't tell your true story. Writing w/your family sitting on your shoulder is impossible. I know. Mine sits there all the time! I've actually stopped writing at times because their weight was just too heavy.

    If you haven't already, I highly suggest reading Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird." It's a wonderfully truthful, heartfelt and wickedly funny:

    On why her students are afraid to write: "they were good children, who often felt invisible and who saw some awful stuff. But at some point they stopped telling what they saw because when they did they were punished. Now they want to look at their lives–at life–and they don't want to be sent to their rooms for doing so."

    I agree, d.

  3. Pingback: Twitted by simmertilldone

Comments are closed.