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My Sister Doesn’t Want Me To Publish My Book

“I don’t want you to publish your book,” my sister said to me last week when I was visiting my family in Michigan. It was after midnight and we were sitting in the ER waiting for my three-year-old son to wake up from his drug-induced state after getting stitches. Playing tag in the dark with his cousins proved not to be such a great idea after all. But while he was knocked out, my sister confided in me that she wasn’t comfortable with some of the content of my book. She didn’t think people should air their family’s dirty laundry just to make money, she said. I explained to her that the scene she was referring to was just two sentences out of a 350-page book and that there were few others like it. She didn’t care. She wanted me to take them out. “Dad read it and he didn’t mind,” I told her. The sentences were about my dad, so I let him read it to see how he’d react before preparing to send it off to agents. “He’s not going to say anything,” she said, “but he doesn’t like it.”

I toyed with this dilemma the entire time I worked on this book. During my MFA program I faced mental blocks to writing scenes about my family because I was afraid of what they might think or say. My teacher told me not to worry about it, to just write the stuff now and worry about it later. But I did worry. How could I not? I knew that one day the time would come when my book was finished and ready to send off for publication, when someone in my family would say, “I don’t want you to publish your book.” I was SO relieved when my dad gave it the thumbs up. The other person I would have worried about was my mom, but she’s been dead for fourteen years. I toned those sentences down after my sister saw them, and I’ve written very little about my family despite advice from some readers that I should include more of them, not less. I’m happy with the result, and I think my sister will be, too, once she reads the whole book. But these aren’t easy decisions for a memoirist to make, and they can stifle a writer’s ability to write openly and honestly about her experiences. I admire memoirists who bare all, especially about themselves, like Bill Clegg in Portait of an Addict As a Young Man and so many other great memoirs I’ve read lately (All Over The Map by Laura Fraser, The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott). But it’s always easier if you’re estranged from the people you are writing about, if you don’t care about their feelings or how they will react. That’s not the case with me.

What about you? Have you written memoir or personal essays? Have you written about other people in your life? How did you strike the balance between telling the whole story and managing their feelings? Did you show them your work before you published it? And if you haven’t written memoir, what do you think you would do if one of your family members told you he didn’t want you to publish your book?

50 comments to My Sister Doesn’t Want Me To Publish My Book

  • c(h)ristine

    I'm not allowed to write about my in-laws ever, period. Even as a passing mention. I can't write about any dead in-laws, either, period. It makes me feel like less of an artist, because I do comply. Even though I have friends who say that people involved with artists sign up for having their lives on display.

    But I married my husband before I started publishing, before I really started writing. So I have to say I didn't disclose that fact when we got married.

    However–my immediately family has given me permission to write about anything/everything. My dad is amazing about that. For that, I am grateful, because they have freed me from making the artist's decision.

    • Christine – That's so wonderful that your parents have given you carte blanche to write about them! Not so wonderful about the in-laws. The fact that you're forbidden to write about them makes me really want to read about them 🙂 I have one ex-boyfriend who politely asked me when we broke up to never write about him, and I agreed. Since our relationship was about as eventful as a rock, that was no skin off my back.

  • sierragodfrey

    Wow, I'm sorry you had to tone it down and sorrier that your sister felt it was necessary to ask you to do so.

    People are strangely weird about this. I wanted to share a story about my dad on my blog and he put the kabosh on it even though it's a great story with lessons in it. He had that right; he's still alive and it was his story not mine.

    Even so it makes me wonder how many wonderful stories we're missing because people are afraid of letting them out. No one takes it personally the way the person in the story does (or relatives in this case).

    Do you think people who object are ones who don't read the entire bit of material? I can certainly think of another well known author who has gone through a similar thing with a sibling.

    • Sierra – Dave Eggers and Augusten Burroughs are two I can think of, and I think there have been many more authors who have caused strife within their families by having written about them. Families of alcoholics are notorious for keeping secrets, and that's the case in my family. Many people are ashamed of their less-than-perfect parents/families/lives and want to keep them a secret from others. What they don't realize is that a) Most families are dysfunctional (many of them alcoholic) and b) People feel closer to, not more estranged from, people who share their flaws.

  • sierragodfrey

    Also– I find it interesting that your sister asked you not to publish your whole book–wiping out YEARS of toil and hopes and dreams just because of two sentences. Asking you not to publish your book is a big thing. Did she have an idea what she was asking you to give up?

    • Sierra – I really don't think most people realize how much work goes into a book. My sister told me once that she wants to write a book with me but "in six months not six years" – referring to the time it's taken me to write my memoir. I think some people read about genre authors who whip off books every year and think that that's a reasonable amount of time to spend writing a book. I want those people to sit down and write a publishable book and then get back to me.

  • KLM

    If your dad has OK'd it, then you've done your due diligence. The point of your book is not to settle any scores, it's to be honest about your life and your experience and that requires being honest about your family life.

    I don't think I could ever be one of these memoirists who bares all. A lot of people would have to be beyond caring (ie., dead) before I could tell my family stories, but even then, it can backfire on you. William F. Buckley's son wrote a book about his life with his famous parents that was really harsh on them. The result? People criticized him for exposing their foibles posthumously when they had no opportunity to defend themselves. Said it was tasteless and unnecessary.

    Honesty requires some tough decisions and a willingness to put up with some static, but dragging your family through the mud to sell some books? I got a problem with that. Art may have no moral qualms, but I do. That's just me. That being said, I can't deny I love reading memoirs that put it all out there. I guess I'm being kind of hypocrite in this regard.

    • KLM – now I want to read William F. Buckley's son's book! 🙂 It can be a fine balance between dragging your family through the mud and telling your story truthfully and sensitively. My sister would prefer I didn't mention anything about my family at all. She doesn't think it's relevant to a modeling memoir. But, of course, to add depth to the story, I had to divulge my feelings and thoughts and how those feelings and thoughts had been shaped by the people around me–including my friends and my family. It was a HUGE relief to me that my dad gave it the thumbs up because he was the only person depicted in any kind of negative light. I'm just hoping if I ever make it into someone's memoir, they use a fake name 🙂

  • lindseycrittenden

    This is SUCH a rich & dicey topic, Meghan. Thanks for addressing it. I don't think writing honestly about people means "dragging your family through the mud." It just means, if done right, writing honestly and with narrative distance. About those we love and those we don't, as long as what we write serves the overall story of the book. Memoir isn't hagiography. That said, I agonized when writing my memoir over how to portray two people in particular who don't come out smelling like roses. I changed one name, and still, he found the published book and blogged about the dangers of dating a writer (read: me). The other, I ran it by her and she said using her name was fine, and then she muttered about libel after it was published. Neither one of these people is a close family member. My parents and brother had died by the time I wrote my memoir; if they'd still been living, I never would have (or could have) written it. Still, though, I spoke with a cousin on the phone the other day. I don't speak to this cousin very often and he said he'd just read my memoir and "didn't agree with all of it." I laughed — it's memoir, you don't have to AGREE with it! But I'm still on tenterhooks waiting to get the note he said he'd written me, thinking of the one brief comment (recognizable only to close family) made in the book about his parents' marriage. So, yeah, there's no pleasing everyone. Sounds like you've done due diligence; knowing you, I'm confident the book is a fair and honest take. I can't wait to read it!

    • Lindsey – Thanks for this thoughtful comment. I think you should blog about this topic, too – about your experience with those three people, how you dealt with them, and whether you would do anything different in the future. I hope I don't kick myself later for what I've written. There's no way to know until it's published. I did change most people's names in the book, but my parents are my parents no matter what names I use. I also think a blog post about the dangers of dating a writer would be a lot of fun to read, although I've never dated one myself.

  • This certainly is the #1 problem with writing memoir. Novels, too, actually. My family are always looking for themselves in my work and often get terribly angry when they see themselves–often in characters that have nothing to do with them. If I have a character who plays a cello, my cello-playing mother is always sure it's her–even though nothing else is the same. My sister sees herself in every difficult sibling character. They overestimate their prominence in my subconscious. I just try to laugh it off.

    Of course, if you're exposing family secrets and using people's real names, some family members will be upset. It can happen even if they aren't the ones who look bad because they feel they're being "exposed." My own sister is a bear about privacy, and I don't think she'd be happy if I mentioned her by name anywhere, in a good or bad context. I can't let my life be dictated by it, though. I don't ask her to read my stuff and if she does, she keeps her opinion to herself.

    But I agree with Sierra that anybody who asks you not to publish the product of years of hard work is acting awfully selfish.

    • Kristan

      Ditto what Anne said. (I had something else typed up and then realized Anne said what I was thinking/feeling better than I did. :P)

      I'm sorry you're facing this dilemma, Meghan. But it seems as though you've tried to compromise, and hopefully your sister can appreciate that. And since it's only a few lines, I'm sure the integrity of your book is just fine.

    • Anne – I love this line: "They overestimate their prominence in my subconscious. I just try to laugh it off." It's hilarious that your mother/sister find themselves in fictional characters that aren't even based on them. But I also agree with this: "I can't let my life be dictated by it, though." I've tried to be as sensitive to other people's feelings as I can, and that's all I can do. I'm not going to censor my memoir because of two uncomfortable sentences. And like I've heard many people say, "If they don't like it, let them write their own memoirs."

  • stacysjensen

    I think the write and don't worry part is great advice, but difficult to practice. There are several issues I have went back and forth about writing in a memoir. I'm glad you were able to write it in a way that satisfied you.

    • Stacy, are you writing a memoir? One thing I don't like about Intense Debate is that when I click a person's name, it takes me to their Intense Debate profile instead of their blog/website. (Or maybe I just don't know how to use it yet).

      • stacysjensen

        Yes. Meghan a Memoir-in-Progress. I'm never sure how to use the intense debate either. I try to make sure I have my blog on all those sites, but I always let one slip by.

  • sweetbutterbliss

    It's hard enough blogging about family. But I feel like if they didn't like what I wrote then they shouldn't have done what they did.

  • I think when you write, you should write what’s true. That can be difficult when you factor in how your relatives might react, but that’s not a reason to not do it. You have to tell your story, not the version that paints everyone as perfect people because that ain’t life and that’s one hell of a boring read to boot. I’ve encountered similar hurdles in my writing and I’m glad you overcame the worries. I think in the end he’ll be proud of your honesty and ability. Glad the little one is okay!

  • I think when you write, you should write what's true. That can be difficult when you factor in how your relatives might react, but that's not a reason to not do it. You have to tell your story, not the version that paints everyone as perfect people because that ain't life and that's one hell of a boring read to boot. I've encountered similar hurdles in my writing and I'm glad you overcame the worries. I think in the end he'll be proud of your honesty and ability. Glad the little one is okay!

    • James – Thanks, his lip was better after about four days! Amazing how fast kids heal. And I agree that we should all write what's true. I think about Jose Antonio Vargas coming out as an illegal immigrant. How brave that was! But how wonderful to read the truth about what it's been like for him to live a lie all these years. Definitely a book I would buy.

  • GREAT topic! It's such a challenging minefield to navigate. Plenty of content in my novels is autobiographical, and I've had some raised eyebrows as a result, as well as "How come you're not making my character do this and that?" 🙂 My suggestion is to have one of your critique partners read those parts that are upsetting to your sister and determine objectively whether they're necessary for the story or are just an airing of something that feels significant to you. If they're necessary, leave them in and send your sister your partner's comments on why they need to be there. If they're not truly necessary, take them out.

    • That's a great idea, Jackie. I also need to send her the revised paragraph because I did tone it down after initially talking to her about it. And I didn't know that there were autobiographical elements in your books! Which character is Betsy? 🙂

  • Has anybody read Molly Giles’s essay “Nobody’s Friend”? It was published in the Spring issue of Gulf Coast. I heard her talk about it last year. She’d written a piece about her daughter and granddaughter that was published in an anthology called “Eye of My Heart,” and it created a huge problem in her family. It’s worth tracking down the article. Very scary stuff– a real minefield indeed. A brief paragraph about it here:

  • E.R.J. McKay

    Excellent post, and very timely. Since I started my book my sisters and I have become estranged. I debate constantly what I can or can not say about them, and I think too of the legal ramifications should I publish and be damned. In saying that, nothing I have written is in any contentious, and there should be no legal rebound. Still, how to navigate this issue has caused me to pause a while and think.

    Thanks for the great thread.


    • Meghan Ward

      E.R.J. – I'm sorry to hear you've become estranged from your sisters since you began writing your book. I urge you to write the book first, then decide what to do because the story may change drastically by the time you finish. Good luck, and please keep us posted.

  • I'm facing a very similar dilemma as I write my memoir. My father, in particular, does not want me to write about him or our relationship because he thinks it will make him look bad. My sister agreed and also used the phrase "airing dirty laundry." I've decided to write it without worrying too much about what they'll think (even though I still do, as you did). I'm not doing this for money, I'm doing it to share my story with the world. I believe everyone should have a voice, and that voice shouldn't be silenced by others just because they're concerned about their image. So, that's how I feel about it.

    • Good for you, Alana. I'm curious, though, did you consider fictionalizing your memoir? I've found that it's a nice idea, but doesn't usually work. Novels are structured differently from memoirs, and memoirs usually work best as memoirs. I love your blog, by the way, and I look forward to reading more of it.

  • bowerbird

    meghan, just so you know, it's ok if you write about me,
    even though i am not in your family, and you don't even
    know me. so, you know, just make some stuff up, ok?
    but make it really juicy, ok? i don't wanna be "ordinary".


    • Meghan Ward

      Bowerbird, I really appreciate the carte blanche to write about you. However, I don't feel comfortable making up scenes in my memoir. If you could do or say something interesting or juicy, that would really help me out. Thank you. Meghan

  • bowerbird

    oh, meghan, if you only knew! ;+)

    come to think of it, i should probably
    save all that stuff for _my_ memoir… :+)


  • Maia

    I struggle with this, too. I published a piece in Glamour a couple years ago and my mother and sisters had to sign releases that they wouldn't sue Conde Nast even though names were changed. In fact, my editor there said that they never would have considered the piece if my grandfather (who also figures into the story and does not come out looking rosy) were still alive. I had a cousin confront me at a wedding this summer to tell me she was upset about how she was portrayed. Again, no names were used ever. Now I'm writing a book that is memoir-ish and I feel conflicted. I don't want to upset anyone or make them feel they're misrepresented, but these are my stories and I feel I have the right to tell them. One thing that was really interesting to me is that even though my sister knew the Glamour piece was non-fiction (she had to sign a release, after all), she kept referring to it as a "story." She called me soon after it came out and said, "That was a really sad story. I felt so bad for the sister." The sister was her!

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