How to approach writing about the people in your life
Sid doesn’t care if I write about him as long as I give him treats.
Hi. Welcome to the first Craft Talk.
A few weeks ago, I finished the first draft of my memoir, A Trip to the End of the World, which I paused to celebrate only briefly before remembering I had many (many, many) drafts to go before I was truly done. (Why do I keep doing this to myself? Because I’m an addict, that’s why.)
The book has a solid foundation though, enough so that I have begun to accept that people will actually read the damn thing someday – and that includes some of the people I’ve written about in it. Whether I feel comfortable with it or not. So how do I get more comfortable with it? How do I know I’m doing this right?
As someone who usually writes novels, I haven’t really had to deal with something like this before, at least not on as grand a scale as an entire book of real people. Sure, I’ve already written a few essays where I’ve discussed people in my life intimately. And I’ve learned — after making plenty of mistakes! — to be careful to show them my work in advance.
But there’s more than a few people I know popping up in this book, all at once. I had sold the book on an outline and a proposal, after all: I knew which stories I was about to tell. And it’s a messier, more sprawling tale. It doesn’t fit in the neat little package like a thousand-word essay in a magazine might. And also — and I realize this is perhaps a more nuanced goal — I just didn’t want to be a dick about the whole thing.
When I started writing it, I consulted with some other memoirists on what my strategies should be with regards to people who would be appearing in my book. I knew there would be no hard and fast rules. But I was interested in conventional wisdom.
There was a universal consensus: just write my book first, and then connect with the people in my life I was writing about later. I needed it to come from the purest place possible, my memories, my truths, my revelations. Alterations and adjustments could be made after the first draft. But it was important to operate just as I would if I were writing anything else. No voices in my head but my own. No creative inhibitions. Just me and the page.
I also spent time contemplating the purpose of the book. I knew I wanted to approach the events of my past from an adult place, and with sensitivity and care, as much as possible. I had to deeply consider my intentions. I do this with every book I write. I need to know why I’m writing it. If I’m going to spend two or so years of my life – writing it, editing it, and then going through the publication process – I had better have a good reason for it. Can you answer that question with your own work?
I’ve read memoirs where authors are holding themselves accountable, and I’ve read memoirs where the authors are holding other people accountable. I think I’m most interested in my own accountability for my actions. And I have had more than a few writers tell me that the memoirist should always be the biggest asshole in the book. That piece of advice might make the most sense to me of all.
There’s also the question of people you no longer talk to, people in your peripheral world. Are we required to track down every single person we mention? Every ex-lover, every former teacher? A good question to ask yourself is: if they’re identifiable, would they consider it a pleasant surprise or not? Another question, which is helpful to ask across the board: do you lose anything in the story by making a subject of your book less identifiable? I would guess not, as long as the emotional truth remains.
Now I’m a draft or two away from when I need to start showing pages to certain people. At some point I’ve discussed with some of them that they’re appearing in the book, and that I’ll be talking about it with them soon. And I’ve told them gently I wrote the book from a place of love, that I am open to discussion, that I don’t want to do anything that will hurt them or negatively impact their life.
What we need to understand as writers is that as vulnerable as we feel when we’re writing, the subject feels just the same to be written about. And what we hope our subjects understand is that a lot of writers can’t really know exactly how we feel about something until we write about it first. It’s our creative process, but it’s our emotional process, too.
All of this calls for exceptional communication. You might be prepared for that kind of honesty on the page. But are you prepared for it in real life? Am I?
If you’d like to be a part of the conversation on this thread (or receive subscriber-only emails), become a paid subscriber here. Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans. And if you’d like to gift a friend with a subscription, you can do so here.
My latest paperback came out this week, this time for my seventh novel, All This Could Be Yours. USA Today said I was “a masterful psychoanalyst, crafting characters whose mental and emotional journeys surprise even as they make perfect intuitive sense." I like the sound of that! Get your copy here.
You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram.