How to Write Honestly About Friends and Family in Memoir | Tammy Letherer | Skillshare

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How to Write Honestly About Friends and Family in Memoir

teacher avatar Tammy Letherer, Author and Writing Coach

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
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Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

6 Lessons (22m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Facing Your Fears

    • 3. Boundaries and Ownership

    • 4. The Three Questions That Will Guide Your Writing

    • 5. Practical Tips for Turning Loved Ones into Compelling Characters

    • 6. Wrap Up and Class Project

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About This Class

Creating compelling characters is challenging, and writing about the real people in your life can be downright terrifying! How much do you share? Will those close to you recognize themselves? What material is yours and what is off-limits? 

Whether you’re writing memoir or fiction, you WILL face these challenges as you write about what--and who--you know. 

This class will help you navigate these sticky situations without compromising the integrity of your story.

Lessons will include:

  • Facing your Fears
  • Boundaries and Ownership
  • Three Questions to Ask Yourself
  • Practical Tips for Turning Loved Ones Into Compelling Characters

"Don't forget-- no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell." -Charles de Lint

Meet Your Teacher

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Tammy Letherer

Author and Writing Coach


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1. Introduction: Author Anne Lamott has a great quote. She says, "Tell your stories, if people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should've behaved better." Welcome to how to write about friends and family in memoir. I'm Tammy Leather, I'm the author of a memoir called, The Buddha at My Table. I'm also a blogger, editor and writing coach. I love writing personal stories and using anecdotes or aha moments from my own life to lead into a wide range of topics. If you read any of my blogs or articles on places like The Huffington Post, Rob Nation, she knows or brazen woman. You'll see that I always begin with a personal story. Often those stories include something funny or sad that happened with me or my kids, or a neighbor or an ex husband. Like I said, I enjoy sharing slice of life moments. But when I was writing my memoir, it wasn't always easy to write about the people in my life. In fact, there were times when it was downright terrifying. Often I didn't know how much was okay to share. I worried about friends recognizing themselves and being angry about appearing in my book. I wasn't sure which events I should consider off limits and how I would even know what those were. This class is for you if you are a writer who was interested in writing stories that include the real people in your life. It's for beginners or for more experienced writers who are facing the same challenges and questions I faced, and who wonder how to go about writing what and who you know. Capturing friends and lovers on the page is a challenge for both fiction and memoir writers. No matter what you write, you can benefit from some of the tips I'll share. However, because memoir is so personal and is based in fact, I'll be focusing mainly on that and using examples from my own experiences as a memoir author. This class will give you new insights about facing your fears when it comes to writing about your loved ones, how to think about boundaries and ownership, three imperative questions that will guide you in your writing and practical tips for turning loved ones into compelling characters. Your skill will be an increased ability to discern what belongs in your story and what doesn't. You'll practice this new awareness in the class project where you'll write a scene about your first love and your first heartbreak. Then you'll apply the filter questions I provide to see how you decide whether a real person has actually earned a place in your story. By the way, to get you started later in the class, I'll share how I wrote about my own first heartbreak in a very personal way. I look forward to reading your class projects and I hope you'll share them here for feedback. Now let's get started with the first video, which is on facing your fears. 2. Facing Your Fears: Here you are ready to write your story. Maybe life handed you a challenge that you overcame and you're inspired to share your journey with the world. Maybe you've lived an incredibly interesting life and have had adventures that will shock and amaze people, and you simply have to get them down on the page. But here's the thing. You haven't existed in a vacuum. Presumably, you're not writing a story about living alone on a desert island. Your story is populated with people and this is what's stopping you. You can't share your experiences without including the good, the bad, and the ugly. This often comes in the form of the people you know, people you love, and people who love you. How do you write the truth without alienating your entire social network? You can fictionalize your story of course, and choose to write a novel rather than a memoir. Even then, you may base your characters on people you know, and you may worry about them recognizing themselves. But at least then you have creative license with fiction. But memoir is trickier. It's based on memories of your life that are assumed to be factual. Readers know your identity. The people you write about probably won't be incognito, and because of that, my focus in this class will be on writing memoir. We're talking about how to face your fears. How do you do that and keep writing? The first step is to commit to the story. This may seem obvious, but I talked to so many writers who spent a lot of time and energy working in fits and starts uncertain about whether they're even allowed to write their own lives. Rather than accept this discomfort, they believe they can put a happy spin on certain events or write only about the lessons they learned or the end results without going into any conflict. Then they wonder why the story peters out, or bores anyone who reads it. You are not going to be one of those people. Because if you're feeling called to write about your life and you know that feeling is not coming from a place of revenge or mean spiritedness, then you have to trust that pull. Arthur Miller writes this, "The writer must be in it. He can't be to one side of it ever. He has to be endangered by it. His own attitudes have to be tested in it. The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always." Are you ready to commit? Once you do, the story becomes king or queen. Meaning the story must be served. It is sovereign, it reigns supreme, it leads the way. It may make demands on you that you don't like. It may put you in some uncomfortable positions. But it has to rule the day. "A half-told story is a weak story, and a weak story will die on the page." Before you commit to your story, you need to ask yourself if you're ready and willing to tell the truth. This can be scary because not only are you telling the truth about yourself, but about the characters in your story. Your husband, your wife, your parents, your children, a best friend, a lost love. I experienced the fear I'm describing myself when I finished my manuscript. I was afraid to let my mother read it because I'd written about how for the majority of my childhood, she was a housewife who didn't handle any of the finances, didn't keep a checkbook, didn't have access to the bank account. So I wrote about my belief that I was hopefully a modern, intelligent woman, and how my divorce made me feel like I was completely dependent on my husband, and I wondered if I was as helpless as my mother had been. Now, I wasn't sure my mother would appreciate this rendition of her, even though it was the truth. But when she read the manuscript, she wasn't offended at all. In fact, she had this to say that because I was so willing to reveal so much about my own struggles, the sections about her were overshadowed. In other words, when you're willing to stand directly in the beam of the spotlight, the people you're writing about will feel less of the glare. Telling the truth about yourself and about others is absolutely essential if you're not ready to be honest about how others actions have affected you, you're not ready to write. Whose truth are you telling? If you're writing memoir, you're writing the truth of your personal experience, truth is not only your goal, but it's the best and only defense against criticism. Write your experiences as you recall them to the best of your ability and elaborate all you want on your internal reactions. For example, share how the hurtful thing your husband said affected you. Or describe the way a casual remark from a boss shattered your confidence. That's your truth. But make sure any analysis, insights, or opinions you share are from your perspective only, refrained from going into others heads. You do this by writing only the actions and dialogues of those you're interacting with. Don't guess at the emotions or ascribe motivations to the real people in your story. In other words, stick with the facts. Another way to face your fears is to lead with love. I suggest getting out a piece of paper and writing down your responses to the following questions. Why are you writing your story? What do you hope to accomplish? What do you want your reader to do, or be, or feel or know after reading your story? What is the highest vision for your project? Why is this the right time for your story to be told? Writing is a process of self-discovery. Often the story you set out to write is not the story that emerges. Self-reflection and self-growth are required and being vulnerable and authentic is imperative if you want to connect with your readers. But that connection begins with yourself. When you clearly understand your motivations for writing your story, your vision will become like this guiding light that leads you through the times of doubt and fear. Next, we'll look at boundaries and ownership and ask, who does a story belong to anyway? 3. Boundaries and Ownership: Who gets to say where your story ends and another person's begins? If something affects you in any way, if it scares you, throws you, embarrasses you, or makes you feel ashamed, makes you laugh. If it claims even the smallest piece of you, then you rightfully own a piece of it. Everyone learns through stories and stories require storytellers. Anne Lamott says, "You own everything that happened to you." That doesn't mean authorship needs to feel like an episode of the Gossip Girl. Your goal is not to dish the dirt on people's simply for the sake of sensationalism. But you don't want to gloss over difficult, yet meaningful scenes either. If you keep asking yourself what you hope to accomplish when you write about someone you know and what you want your readers takeaway to be, then you'll stay on track. Remember, the story reigns supreme. Your job as the writer is to choose the elements that best serve the story. If you are leading with love and are clear about what you hope to gain when you write about your friends and family, it will be easier to discern which interactions or anecdotes deserve a place in the story. As an example, when I was writing the first draft of my memoir, I included an incident that involved my sister. It had happened many years before when she was a teenager, she made a mistake that turned out to be painful and dangerous and to have long-lasting consequences and affected me profoundly. Because of that, I really thought that it needed to go in my memoir. Of course, I experienced a lot of fear and discomfort around the thought of sharing something that was a very personal experience from her life. When I asked myself what the story revealed about me, I saw that it did not deserve a place in my book. It was more about her than it was about me. So did I own a piece of that experience? Yes. But did it serve the story? No. It wasn't necessary to the journey I was taking in my memoir and my story did not suffer by leaving it out. You as the writer have to determine your own boundary lines. Others don't have to like it, and you are not required to justify your choices. But you do have to make your choices intentionally. You should be able to answer these questions. How does my interaction with this friend or lover advance my story? What specific emotion or insight of mine does this event convey? Luckily, there's a filter you can use to go even deeper into this idea of boundaries and ownership. It's a lesson that supposedly comes from Socrates, so it goes back quite a ways. We'll take a look at it in the next video and see how this ancient method of inquiry is a great tool for writers. Stay tuned to learn more about what's called the three sieves, or the three gates of speech. 4. The Three Questions That Will Guide Your Writing: Rumi wrote about the three gates of speech. The Quakers have long taught the three sieves, which as I mentioned, is typically attributed to Socrates. They're referring to three questions that are helpful to ask in any situation. They work especially well for writers who want to write real life stories about friends and family. The first question is, is it true? The facts are the facts and they trumped all rouse. Granted, human memory is fallible, but events should be recorded as faithfully as possible. Don't worry if you don't remember every detail of an experience. It's not about what you're eating or what season it was. Your goal is to convey the truth with a capital T. In other words, the emotional truth. You do that by giving the essence of an experience. Author Tim O'Brien says it this way, "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story truth is truer sometimes than happening truth." The next question is, is it kind? The question is not whether a player in your story will react kindly to it. Because that's unforeseeable and uncontrollable. But are you coming from a place of kindness and compassion? Is your intention to be authentic and educate or inspire your reader? Now here I want to take a moment and examine this idea of kindness a little further, because I don't want you to use kindness as a cop-out. By that, I mean, don't be so concerned with pleasing everyone else that you leave yourself out of the equation. It's easy to worry so much about making others uncomfortable that you're willing to ignore the discomfort you may feel when you don't give yourself permission to express what you want to express. You have a right to your story. Not everyone will like that. But being kind starts with kindness to yourself by being true to yourself and trusting your desire to write your story. My memoir is about how I found peace after going through betrayal and divorce. My former husband was not happy about me writing this book. From his perspective, it was not kind of me to write it. But I knew that I was writing my own personal experience in a way that was fair and I was willing to put myself in that spotlight. As a result, I was able to make sense of a devastating event and through that process to find peace and compassion. The third question in the three gates of speech, or the three sieves is, is it necessary? This is the question that requires the most intuition. I imagined a emotional gong. Listen as you tell your story first with all the details about your friend or family member and then without. How loudly does each version reverberate? Which one illuminates a higher truth? Can you leave out this friend or family member and still achieve the same result? Once you put your stories through the three sieves, you'll know which ones to keep and which ones need to be cut. You'll have an idea of which friends and family members you need to write about. You'll be ready to be as truthful and fair as possible in your writing. Now let's take a quick look at some practical tips for turning loved ones into compelling characters. That's the topic of our next video. 5. Practical Tips for Turning Loved Ones into Compelling Characters: Let's look at some practical tips for including people you know in your writing. First of all, always change the names. Unless you have a really compelling reason to keep names the same, it's always easier to simply change them, especially the names of minors. Next, if you feel you have to use real names for some reason, then make sure you get permission. Utilize creative license, memoir is an art form that is closer to fiction than it is to autobiography, so you can take the essence of the person you want to write about and change identifying traits. Maybe someone who is a doctor in your life becomes a lawyer, or a female character becomes a male, or you change your cousin to your best friend. Name, birthplace, careers, lifestyles, these can all be changed, but the person's defining feature or special quirk should remain the same. In this way, you'll be conveying the essence of that person and the relationship with you, but you won't be compromising their privacy. Finally, include a disclaimer, a typical one may read that events are described to the best of your memory, but that certain names and characteristics have been changed to protect the identity of certain individuals. Now that you understand that you need to face your fears and commit to your story and you're ready to own your experiences while remaining kind and truthful, you're ready to write a scene about someone you know. In the next video, I'll share the class project, which is to describe your first heartbreak. 6. Wrap Up and Class Project: I've asked you to describe your first heartbreak as the class project, and I think it's only fair that I've made myself do this project as well. I wrote a piece describing how I recently sent a love letter to the boyfriend who dumped me in high school. This is someone I haven't spoken to in more than 30 years, but I was looking through an old album and I came across a note that this person wrote me. I had completely forgotten about it, which was shocking because on the note he had written that he loved me. Now, I was 16 years old and no one had ever said that to me before. It really touched me and it also made me sad that I hadn't acknowledged it all those years ago. Now, as the mother of teenage boys, I realize how brave it was of him to say that. I wrote about this, describing my memories of him and his time, and instead of remembering the heartache, I was able to feel gratitude for the feelings he shared with me. I was able to own that story from a different perspective, one that was more healing and appreciative. I was able to be kind in a way my 16-year-old self wasn't. I was able to see what was true for me, that receiving love is not always easy for me and by deciding that I needed to share that story, I gave myself permission to re-frame the past in a way that feels like a gift, that's the power of memoir. Now it's your turn, time to describe your first heartbreak, was it the quiet boy in your chemistry class who left you a love note in your locker or the girl you met at the coffee shop who encouraged you to become an artist and became your biggest fan? What about the one who you marry, who promise to forsake all others? For this project describe the moment your heart was broken by someone you loved. Be specific about an exchange you had rather than giving a general overview about this person. In this one moment you're writing about, what did this person say or do or not do that affected you? What did it mean to you? Read the project description for some additional tips to get you started. When you finish your description of this person and how he or she hurt you, run it through the three sieves to determine whether it's earned a place in your story, then post your scene on the class project for some feedback. If you want to learn more about how to structure your memoir, please check out my class, Crafting Memoir: How to Outline Your Own Hero's Journey. In the meantime, I hope you keep writing. "Don't forget: No one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell." I'm Tammy Letherer, and this has been how to write about friends and family in memoir. Thanks for watching.