• (Family) Secrets Secrets Are No Fun…

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Strategies     Comments 18 comments

    TL;DR version: Writing about family without stepping on feelings can be difficult. But when authenticity is at stake, which is more important: Loyalty to the narrative or loyalty to your loved ones? This week I want to discuss if/when writers have the right to take private matters public, and if so, whether or not we should pull our punches. Then at the end of the post I offer you a chance to choose my own adventure for me. Because, help!


    When writing about your family and/or friends, how do you strike a balance between writing honestly and sparing the feelings of your subjects? Is it possible to be both authentic and considerate? Is it a simple matter of knowing when to pull your punches versus when to swing full force?

    Every week we get at least one email or call from a writer wondering how to write about family without inflicting severe emotional damage and/or sowing discord. This week, the query comes from… me! Because I’m up against it myself. And I wrote a sort of choose your own adventure, and I’m curious to see which option you folks would go with. Or have gone with, since I know a lot of you have already worked through this topic.

    In other words: Help!


    … Unless You Share with Everyone

    In last week’s post about our 2017 writing goals, I mentioned that I’ve abandoned the novel I was working on and have moved to a nonfiction project. That project is half reportage, half memoir. My family plays a prominent role in the memoir half, and here’s where I’m running into some trouble.

    I’ll be revealing secrets both personal — stuff about me that few people know, including no one in my family — and familial, things known and kept only by my immediate family.

    Many of these things contribute to the painting of an unflattering portrait. But they are matters I need to write about if I want this project to be honest and authentic. Loyal to the narrative.

    But there’s the other side of the loyalty coin: the familial loyalty. Do I have a right to share with the general public secrets my family clings tightly to? When is it OK to take private matters public?

    Your turn: In what situations do you feel it’s your right as a writer to take something public that will negatively impact others? When is it not your right?


    Writing AboutAround  Your Family

    For many writers this is touchy stuff. In December 2014, Justine wrote this post titled “Writing About Your Family.” In the comments section, a reader left some remarks and questions about a family project he or she was working on. Justine responded. Two and a half years later, that writer asked me to remove the comments so that nobody in his or her family would find them.

    Certain members of my family will be mortified by some of the things I’m writing about in this book. They’ll consider it a betrayal. A public airing of dirty laundry. But without those things, my book won’t be authentic. And it will suffer because of that.

    So whose suffering do I work to prevent: My book’s or my family’s?

    Your turn: Have you been in a similar situation? Are you willing to share it with us in the comments below?


    Choose My Own Adventure for Me

    Here are a few options I’ve come up with for how to approach this:

    1) Scrap the whole thing and spare everyone’s feelings.

    2) Write the whole thing but don’t publish it or let anyone read it.

    3) Without warning, write and publish the authentic version that is sure to cause major dissension.

    4) Write and publish a scrubbed version that won’t step on any feelings.

    5) Talk to my family between now and attempting publication, explain what I’m doing, discuss the touchy parts, make it clear why I consider them necessary, and:

    a) Tell them to fasten their seatbelts, because this thing is happening with or without them.

    b) Ask them if they’re OK with what I’m doing, and offer some opportunity for input & compromise.

    6) Whatever genius idea you may have that I didn’t think of.

    Your turn: What’s your answer and why? Which of these tactics have you tried in the past, and how did it go? Let us know all of this and anything else in the comments below.

    And thank you for your input!


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and writes about literature for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2016 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    Glynis Jolly

    I made the mistake of publishing a blog post about a family event. I will never do it again. I have one family member angry at me for the rest of my life and, to tell the truth, I do understand why.

    With this stated though, I do take bits and pieces of family members and weave them into other parts that are completely fictional to develop my characters.

    David Duhr

    Hi Glynis. I’ve done that too, the weaving of a family member’s traits into fictional characters. Do any of those family members spot themselves in the fiction? Do you think they look for themselves in your characters?

    Joe Jensen ( J-13 )

    When I began emailing with you and your wife, it was in Austin and I did so at the suggestion of a Public Radio announcer and friend. I was curious and I was considering retirement. Then, I began writing an autobiography as I felt that this is what all good ” pre retirees ” did and I wanted the book started before I entered the land of Medicare and Social Security. I wanted to make this book about real history and all of the experiences I had had as a first wave ( born in 1946 ) baby boomer. Over… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Hi Joe. It’s good to hear from you, and thanks for the input. 1,000 pages?! That’s really something. It sounds like you’ve got an abundance of great material, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. But you call it a sort of blog “to myself.” Meaning that you’re writing it with an audience of one in mind (that one being yourself), as if it’s a journal? Thanks for the advice here, to leave the good, bad, and ugly but to make sure the analysis of it all is well thought out. That’s a key component, and I need to keep… Read more »

    John Liebling

    We live in a brave new world, where bravery doesn’t mean what it used to mean, and what I mean is that the lines between privacy and public consumption has changed dramatically over the past 25 years. Known as the K effect(affect)…those mighty intellects of our era the Kardashians and Jenners. These Kardashians look a little different from the ones I remember from Star Treks: Deep Space Nine. Attitudes are similar but the look is a tad off. On a more serious note. David you offer up a serious problem. I would lean towards not offending family. After all you’re… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Hey there, John. Thanks for the thoughtful, as usual, reply. I appreciate the input. This project isn’t a novel anymore, it’s nonfiction, so that adds a twist to some of the things you and I have discussed re fictionalizing real people. It wouldn’t necessarily start a war — there would be a skirmish here and there, but I doubt it would forever damage relationships. Then again, my predictions about these people have been very wrong in the past, very often. You mentioned composites. That might be difficult for the memoir half of the book. And even if I do blur… Read more »

    John Liebling

    Just a thought, any other writers in your family besides Justine? War of words, could really become war of words. Rule of thumb would be, how would you feel if someone else aired out something from your past, you would have preferred to remain in the past. Also something to consider is the idea of privacy. As someone hitting 60 in ten months – privacy is a far different animal for people over the age of mid-30s…and the difference is greater for those in their teens and 20s. Reality has indeed skewed in a different direction. Meaning what might not… Read more »

    Ellen Garfield

    I think most memoir writers struggle with this issue. I would choose 5(b). Last week I went to a class, Legal and Ethical Issues in Memoir Writing, where the instructor offered the plumb line of truth and kindness in memoir writing. She also noted it is important to tell YOUR story. Whose story is it to tell? Another student suggested the book, The Secret Life of Families by Evan Imber-Black, Phd. I am reading it and find it quite helpful in wrestling with the issues you describe. My opinion is everyone has an important story to tell. When it is… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Thanks for stopping by, Ellen, and thank you for the input (and for the book suggestion). The thing that scares me the most about 5b is one or all of the people in question being unwilling to compromise in any way. I can envision ultimatums: “Publish this and we’ll never speak again.” But if I can envision that response now, it gives me plenty of time to plan a reaction. The timing would be key too. Talk to them too early and I might allow them to have undue influence on what and how I write. Talk to them too… Read more »


    I am only talking about fiction writing, not news, BTW. I believe if it is truly going to hurt someone, I wouldn’t do it. For example, “outing” someone who does not want to be outed, or that your mom gave up a baby for adoption and she doesn’t want that info shared, or the like, of course not. After the person has passed away, I think all bets are off. Your family holding your honest manuscript hostage because it might make them look, um, fallible, is neurotic of them. Everyone makes mistakes in life, has missteps, says the wrong thing… Read more »

    David Duhr

    E! Thanks for the help here. It seems like you’re suggesting some middle ground: be authentic, but be kind about it. Which makes sense. I’m not outing anyone, I’m not upending anyone’s life. Or am I? I guess I can’t say that this definitely won’t do either of those things, in a manner of speaking. But tone and intent are important. My tone isn’t harsh, and my intent isn’t to say “Hey, look at these raging assholes.” It’s just to tell that part of the story, because it relates to the bigger story. But all of this is closer to… Read more »


    I was only trying to say that the other person’s rights end where yours begin. You’re a nice guy to consider sacrificing part of your livelihood to protect Aunt Martha’s reputation. I hope you do write it.

    Sandy Kaiser

    Write a great fiction novel ( that is actually true!) That is what I really want to do! An R.N that I worked with on an Alcohol-drug unit of a hospital once made the comment ” fact is stranger than fiction .”Very strange things happened in my family of origin. I think if I wrote a fiction novel that was based on truth it would be great! I just need to write it! And so do you!

    kia christina

    Truth being stranger than fiction.
    Blood being thicker than water.
    Thin is the veil which hides
    These mysterious shadows of love.

    […] doing some research into my dad’s life for the book. I’m interviewing strangers, doing research at the county courthouse, walking into places […]

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