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Agony Editor: Honesty is the best policy when writing about family

Dear Agony Editor,

Brian Francis (Evan Munday)

(Evan Munday)

My grandmother’s first husband abandoned her with three kids during the Depression. Her second husband was an alcoholic, and she eventually became addicted to pills. I’ve always wanted to write a novel based on her life, but guilt is holding me back. I feel like I might taint her memory, or I’ll upset family members. How do I get over it and just write the damn book?

Keeping It in the Family

Dear Keeping It,

Your question calls to mind a conversation I once had with my dear friend, celebrated memoirist David Sedaris. Well, maybe we’re not exactly “dear” friends. “Conversation” might be a bit of a stretch, too. We spoke, briefly, when I finally made it up to his book-signing table.

Mr. Sedaris, if you’re not familiar, writes humorous, but seldom flattering, essays about his family. As a lifelong fan, I’d always been curious as to how he felt about mining his kin for material. “Do you ever feel guilty?” I asked him. He shook his head and said there were plenty worse things he could write about his family, but he chose not to. He signed my book and when I got outside, I read the inscription: “To Brian. I remain guilt free. Almost.” That “almost” is something every writer needs to reconcile with. Your writing might hurt people,  especially if it’s honest. Even more so if it’s good.

Unlike Mr. Sedaris, you’re a fiction writer. That means you have free rein to blend the truth with stuff you make up. If you were to write your grandmother’s story, chances are you’d end up with something based in reality, but not bound by it either. Which is the way it should be. Your novel needs to be just as much your story as your grandmother’s. In terms of your guilt, weigh the options. Will you turn on your creative light or will other people’s opinions keep you cowering in the shadows? My hunch is that if you approach your subject thoughtfully and respectfully, you should be able to walk away with your head held high. Almost.


Brian Francis is the author of Natural Order and Fruit. He teaches creative writing­ as part of the International Festival of Authors.Have a question for Brian? Email info@quillandquire.com.