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Writing Family Secrets

“And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter— they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long.”

―Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Many writers want to bring stories from their lives out of the cramped dark and into the light, but they want to do this without causing harm to themselves or the people they are compelled to write about, usually family members.

When they start out, they have Anne Lamott’s quote on a mental repeat. (“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”) That’ll help them get out of the cramped dark for a little while. Then they publish a few pieces in the odd, obscure journal, where people featured in the story or poem won’t stumble across it. But the question of how to navigate both the relationship and the writing is likely to rear its Pandora-head when they get closer to publishing their writing in a (big, public) book.

“You wait until your parents are dead before you write about them!” my mother said on the phone recently, reminding me how angry she remains years after I published a poem about our relationship. When I published my book, I wasn’t ready for her response. I had half-hoped it would lead to some kind of healing for us—that letting the light into my small cramped dark would make us both stronger. After all, I hear that other writers had family members embrace them and that they found greater compassion for one another once things were in print. (Insert rueful laugh here.)

Today, I stand behind my decision to Anne-Lamott my way through the composition of my manuscript, but, when it came to publishing, I wish I had Brené-Brown-ed it. In this talk Brown did about vulnerability and feedback on your writing, she recommends that you don’t release a story until you are okay about its substance.

I can see why. Releasing writing when the events and emotions are still raw makes you vulnerable to other’s responses. I'm living proof—the response to my words had a negative impact on my writing and contributed (among other things) to years of being blocked.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know I think the lit in lit writing comes when you write with compassion and love, when you seek to understand the other. And I think you can do this honestly, and without harm, even while you truth-tell and spill family secrets. More than that, I do think you must do this and truth tell because the people to whom you can “pour out your soul” and share your ugly truths are readers who need your words.

But only when you’re ready.

Have you written any family secrets? Come join a community of writers talking about this and many other topics related to the writing life in the Lit Writers Facebook Group.