What Family Trouble Taught Me

September 16, 2013 § 8 Comments

Castro small headshotA guest post from Joy Castro, editor of the new nonfiction anthology Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family:

All of us have family we deeply love—or if not deeply love, then at least are fond of.  Or, at the very least, have no wish to hurt.  Yet family stories are so compelling, so blistering, that many of us long to write them, despite the exposure they risk.  Whether we’re memoirists drawing directly from life, fiction writers rolling and patting our autobiographical material into new shapes, or poets pulling images and people from our own lived pasts, when it comes to family, we all wrestle with responsibility.  How much to reveal?  How much to protect?

After my memoir The Truth Book was published in 2005, audiences everywhere most wanted to know how my mother responded, what my brother said.  They asked with an urgency and energy that didn’t accompany their questions about form, or how long the book took to write, or who my literary influences were.  It was how my family responded that mattered.

I wondered if other memoirists faced similar questions, and I wondered how they’d dealt with family concerns while writing.  I wanted to invite all the memoirists I admired to have a long conversation about it.

This curiosity and hunger for dialogue led, over a span of several years, to Family Trouble:  Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family a new collection of essays by 25 memoirists who’ve lived to tell the tale.

The award-winning authors, many of whom are college educators and have published texts on craft, come from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and family configurations.  They’ve published memoirs about parents, children, siblings, spouses, and extended family, each of which raises its own unique and delicate questions.

Family Trouble coverFor Family Trouble, they wrote thoughtfully about the careful ethical choices involved, the boundaries they drew, and the practical strategies (on the page and in real life) they developed.  Their essays probe the central question at stake:  When do we privilege our own art and vision, and when do we privilege the privacy of real people in our lives?

For example, it’s one thing to write about family members who are deceased, but what if they’re still alive?  Writing about parents is vexed enough, but writing about our vulnerable children is another matter entirely.  How does disability complicate these issues?  Adoption?  How do different ethnic traditions view (and censure) the revelation of family material to the public?  On a practical level, do we leave names in or take them out?  Do we share our manuscripts with family members before publication, or not?

The 25 authors don’t come to neat consensus; their earned stances are as varied as their subject positions in our complicated world.  Although no one-size-fits-all set of commandments emerges, what I learned is that a variety of tested strategies can make this endeavor less fraught.  What is consistent among the pieces is a sense of earnest searching:  the desire to see, to understand.

Family Trouble offers a shimmering array of smart, sensitive suggestions for writers who want to navigate family material.  The authors’ explorations of this sticky subject are challenging, candid, funny, and moving.  The essays schooled me.  They excited and grew me.

I hope Family Trouble will provoke new conversations and help other writers and teachers of writing.  I know it has already helped me.

Joy Castro is the author of the memoir The Truth Book and the New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water and Nearer Home.  Island of Bones, her collection of personal essays, is a PEN Finalist and the winner of an International Latino Book Award.  Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Seneca Review, North American Review, and The New York Times Magazine.  She teaches literature, creative writing, and Latino studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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§ 8 Responses to What Family Trouble Taught Me

  • Joy, I appreciated hearing about the journey that led you to publishing this collection of essays that answers the many queries from your readers. However, I would have appreciated hearing a couple of examples, teasers you might say, to persuade me to buy this book of essays–maybe an example of how you managed your family and perhaps one from another memoirist whose answer surprised you and why. I have written a memoir currently in search of a publisher, with many more to be written. This problem of family does not apply to me because my siblings and parents are all deceased. However, I do work with many other writers who are confounded by this issue and one who has chosen not to publish a wonderful manuscript because of family complaints. I would like to recommend this book to her, but don’t have enough information to do that. I will however check it out on Amazon to see if I can garner more information. I am intrigued.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    Like Castro, I get questions about my family’s reaction to my memoir more than any other question. I know it’s ironic, but even though I wrote a memoir, I consider anything not addressed in the book off-limits. I carefully chose what to reveal.

  • kamackinnon says:

    I’m just beginning down the road of writing memoir and creative non-fiction and it’s a struggle I’m facing already. I found this post intriguing and I suspect your book is going on my to-read pile. Thank you for posting!

    • lisakbuchanan says:

      Ironic? Maybe, rachelhanel. But when we write we can make well-measured decisions. It’s the unexpected questions that throw me, as if having told some parts of my story, I must tell other parts when complimented by a reader’s genuine curiosity. Thanks for mentioning the way you handle it. I think it’s admirable.

  • […] via What Family Trouble Taught Me. […]

  • lisakbuchanan says:

    I ordered this book when I first saw the announcement. Eager to read it!

  • What a timely post. I recently had a conversation (and a subsequent no-writing-about-my-kids-without-their-permission rule) with my children who requested that I not write about them. I worked it out in an essay on my blog and am comfortable with my decision. However, I have other family issues that I am working through, and that I know are not a unique to my family. I wrestle with whether my story might help others, but at the risk of violating the privacy of people I love. I’m intrigued by this book.

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