As a writer witnessing your own family roots, there is always material available to you. Of course, you are treading on sensitive ground when you write about your family, your history. Personally, it taps into your own unconscious triggers and ties. If this is something you are writing for publication, then you risk offending a family member.
Honestly, I don’t know how to get around this “Catch-22“. I need to write about where I’ve come from as part of my healing process, my journey back to myself. And I’ve done so extensively in my journals and especially through my poetry. Some of these poems have been published or widely shared. While they are not intended to offend anyone, I cannot predict how a family member is going to react. My candid writing, could trigger a sibling or other relative. There are laws in place around libel (written form of defamation of character). If you are seriously considering publishing anything that could defame another person, it would be wise for you to consult a libel attorney for clarity. Fine lines here.
Writers sometimes use camouflage (changing names, places, exact circumstances) in order to tell a story. In the film, Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen plays a novelist who uses his friends’ lives as fodder for his writing. He is haunted by his friends’ reactions to this very blatant exposure.
All of that said, when I’m authentic in telling my story, the reader connects seeing that I’ve gone through something similar or at least identifiable to him/her. I’ve made myself vulnerable to my readers. Discretion and compassion go a long way in helping you decide upon how you choose to write about your familial connections.
If you choose not to publish anything about your family, it is still important to do the work of excavating your own past. Why? Basically because it is through this excavation process that you will bond with the forces that make for good depth writing. When writing is honest and evocative to the reader, it is usually because the writer has a personal grasp of human foibles, emotions and psychology. Your family, your ancestry is your personal learning ground. It is through these ties and connections that you have learned about yourself and become who you are.
I am a child
of every story told
echo through my cells.
pumps my heart
to nature’s cycles
–breath exchanged with trees.
recycled fragments of ancestors–
Great Grandma Nell, Grandmother Louise.
the skeleton of HIS-story
from which I was
I am daughter of my mother, Severina
who was daughter of her mother, Anna.
meek rolls in fleshy woman’s form
whom I looked to
shame and oppression.
I am a blessed child
able to probe deeper
than their times allowed
tapping into the ancient stories formed
before women fell from grace.
How do you approach this Catch-22? Do you write about your family history with the intention of publication? Do you write only for yourself in order not to offend family members? Do you tell a family story while disguising the exact characters & events? Or, do you choose not to go into this territory? Take some time to consider this for yourself.
When diving into family history, set a healthy boundary for yourself. If you’re too tender don’t go there. When you decide you’re ready to navigate this territory, have support in place. Respect where you are at.
Be gentle to yourself today.