Peter Murphy: A Few Helpful Tips on Writing about Family
Writing about family can be a very dangerous business because not all families teem with the ideals of unconditional love and the consistent and constant support so often attributed to the institution.
Many, it would seem, are populated with jealous and cranky contrarians who have the ability to see slights in everything, said or unsaid, action or inactivity, presence or absence; the types that will see themselves in books that are not about them and cannot when they are.
These are the sort of people that will never be happy with how you have written them. If presented in less than flattering light, they will threaten legal action, disowning, or shunning. While if you choose to be more positive, they will go around telling everybody that they were your inspiration and that your book would not have been any good without them. And if you decide to leave them out and write about other family members you risk being accused of favoritism, or worse.
So, if you do come from one of those families, it might be better not to write about them at all. Even if you know it would get you on an Oprah-like show. In addition to the points raised above, this world is already full of those kinds of books and, given the times we live in, dysfunctionality has become the new norm.
I jest, of course.
Writing about family is for many writers, like hitting the mother lode, particularly those with axes to grind and old scores to settle. Those with scarred and twisted emotions that are often the legacy of growing up in, what from the outside appeared to be, a normal family.
This should also be a major consideration before starting a family and entering into parenthood. And, if you must, then teach your children to read and leave it at that. Whatever you do, don’t teach them how to write. No good will come of it and besides, they can get by in today’s world with emojis, and the likes. Or they can take selfies to express their emotions if they are especially needy and attention driven.
Teaching a child to write is not much different than inviting an investigative journalist into a cult. Even if there is no story to tell, they can make one up and sell it as creative nonfiction.
But it you have already, then you could consider a preemptive strike. You could pen your version of MY LIFE WITH THOSE HORRIBLE KIDS THAT SUCKED THE MARROW FROM MY BONES AND THEN COMPLAIN THAT THEIR INHERITANCE WILL BE TOO SMALL. Or something with a catchier title.
Whatever you do, even if your offspring had taken to following you around with a notebook—or modern equivalent—don’t think about deserting them. As tempting as it might sound, it really would just be dowsing the smoldering embers of angst with gasoline. The deserted child who becomes a writer will make you out to be a drunken philanderer who ran away from all responsibility, even if you had been abducted by a landing party of malevolent alien intruders.
Or course, if that happened, you might just have a best seller on your hands, as well as some really sweet vindication.
And children, if you find yourselves the offspring of a writer, just put yourself up for adoption. Despite the obvious downside, it could be far better than growing up with all the neglect, moodiness, self-doubt, and obsessiveness that writers are known for.
But if that is not the life for you, try sucking up to them. Bring them coffee. Keep the dog and the cat out of the study. Learn to cook and wash, and iron. Tell them their work is brilliant. Tell them whatever it takes to get them to finish the book. Who knows? They might get famous after they die and leave the royalties to you.
And if you are the sibling of a writer . . . well as a writer with siblings I just happen to have a few opinions on that.
First of all, buy their books even if you have to take out a loan to do it. It will be cheaper than having to listen to them moan and complain about how the world is incapable of recognizing their genius when they come over to crash on your couch for a few months.
Secondly, loan them money even if you have to sell blood for it. It’s the only way to get rid of a writer, and you can get your couch back.
Thirdly, never publicly criticize anything they write about you. Always be supportive and encouraging until they have made it. Then write your own tell all and cash in.
But I jest . . .
Peter Murphy is the author of five novels, including Lagan Love, The Life & Times Trilogy, and The Last Weekend of the Summer, all published by The Story Plant.