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Creative Nonfiction: Writing about Home and Family

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October 2012
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In writing about home and family, you must create a dramatic and cinematic narrative. It must also be based on truth and fact–not fiction. Creative nonfiction writers often structure their stories about home or family as a “narrative arc.” And they use the literary techniques of fiction to reconstruct reality, such as dialogue, setting, vivid details. The scene is the most important literary technique available to the creative nonfiction writer. When writing in “scenes”, the writer of creative nonfiction “shows” the reader what happened. A scene includes setting details, action (something happens), dialogue, personal point of view, and vivid details. Writing in “scenes” enables the writer to craft prose that are dramatic and cinematic.  The writer often relies on memory to retrieve facts. The writer will also include personal reflection and share “emotional truth.”

In recent years, several bestselling, creative nonfiction books have been written about “home and family.” Frank McCourt wrote “Angela’s Ashes,” a memoir about poverty and growing up with an alcoholic parent. Jeanette Walls wrote “The Glass Castle”, which deals with growing up with two “eccentric, peculiar, dysfunctional parents.” Mary Karr wrote “The Liar’s Club” about the chaos she experienced growing up with boozing, shouting, combative, self-destructive parents, and a grandmother she despised.

In this article, I explain how to write about home and family. The following will be covered:

  • Minefield of Home and family
  • How to write about home and family
  • Dealing with family members who don’t want you to write about them
  • Writing about emotional truth
  • Motives for writing about family
  • The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction
  • Literary techniques for writing about home and family

The Minefield of Home and Family

Many families have taboos and secrets, which are not shared with the outside world.  And so, if you intend to write about these taboos, these secrets, these skeletons in the closet, you could be confronted by an angry brother, or a threat from an uncle, or social isolation from family. People keep family secrets private for a reason. They are embarrassing to talk about them. They fear legal reprisals, such as sexual abuse charges by the police. They fear the outside world passing judgement. Before sharing family secrets in an personal essay or memoir, you must answer two questions:

  • What is your purpose in sharing these secrets or taboos?
  • Is the cost of sharing family secrets worth the price?

Even if you are going to write about sexual abuse or alcoholism, you must write in a respectful way. Brenda Miller, in “Tell It Slant,” writes: You “must find a way to handle this subject with both aplomb and discretion.” In other words, you must be careful about how you present the facts. Writing in a balanced way is important. People have both positive and negative personality traits. Most people are not all bad, wicked, evil.

How to Write about Family or Home

In Telling It Slant, author Brenda Miller suggests that you can write about family as either a biographer or as a witness. When writing as a biographer, you are writing about someone else’s life story. Writing as a biographer can create emotional distance, which is necessary to write about sensitive topics related to family and home. It  will also allow you to include other subjects, such as community, culture, history.  Writing as a biographer also allows you to use your imagination to speculate about a place or people before you knew about them.

The other approach is to write as a witness.  When writing as a witness, you write as an observer and victim. You experienced the abuse, the neglect, the poverty, the alcoholism. As a witness, you can share the facts as you saw them. If you experienced the poverty, the neglect, you are a victim. You can write about it—as you saw it. You can also include “emotional truth.” Did you  like a family member? Why? Why not? How  did you feel about the person? How did the abuse feel? How did you feel eating cat food for lunch? Memoirist Jeannette Walls writes as a witness and victim in her memoir “The Glass Castle.” Not only does she include anecdotes, stories, scenes, she includes personal reflection and emotional truth of growing up with two “oddball” and dysfunctional parents.

Hitting the Road Block

Sometimes, when writing creative nonfiction, the writer hits a “road block” and is unable to uncover the facts about home and family. Therefore the writer can “speculate” on what happened. When using this approach, the writer must explicitly tell the reader what he/she is speculating about a person or event. Otherwise, the writer is crafting a fictional story. For instance, suppose you had a father who always stayed out late, returned home disheveled in the middle of the night. You could speculate on the reason. Perhaps he was having an affair with his secretary. Perhaps he was moonlight for organized crime. Perhaps he loathed to sleep with your mother. A way to speculate is by using the word “perhaps.” This notifies the reader that you are merely speculating. Another approach is the notify the reader in the introduction of the book.

Emotional Truth

When writing about home or family, the writer can share emotional truth. What is emotional truth? It is how the writer feels about a person, place, event, experience. It is a subjective feeling. For instance, a brother might have felt that his parents were normal, while a sister who was verbally abused could view the family home as dysfunctional. Both the brother and sister could present emotional truth that is contradictory. Emotional truth answers the question: How did it feel to you?

Motives for Writing

When writing about family or home, you must not write as if you wan to punish a family member with “revenge prose.” Nor must you write as though you are sharing all your family secrets on the therapist’s couch. Your motives must be more than just to expose family secrets and its history.(Tell It Slant). You ” must have some perspective on the experience that spurs the essay beyond your own personal “dirty laundry.” (Tell It Slant) Your duty might be to speak on behalf someone else in the family who is unable or unwilling to share the family taboos. Your purpose might be to bring “justice” to those who sexually abused or physically assaulted you or another family member. Your intention might be to tell others that despite the abuse or poverty or neglect, you were strong enough to overcome these obstacles and make something of your life.

Obtaining Approval

When you write about family secrets or taboos, you risk the wrath of family members. Ideally, you want to obtain the approval from those family members you intend to write about. Yet, sometimes family members refuse to provide you with their blessing. And so, you must consider other approaches. Some writers compose the true story anyway, and then hope for minimal backlash. Other writers, fearing a backlash that isn’t worth it, morph their true story into fiction. Sometimes writers change the names of the people in the story. Other writer create a composite, which combines the personality traits and physical appearance of two or more characters into a new character.  Frank McCourt, author of “Angela’s Ashes”, a memoir about family and alcoholism and poverty, waited until after the participants were deceased to write his story.

Writing about Home

Why wrote about home? Home is often the setting for writing about family. Home creates a mood.  Home often provides the backdrop for memoir. Home can be like an antagonist or character you don’t like in a story.  When writing about home, ask yourself the following questions before writing:

  • How was it decorated? What was your favorite place? What did you like or dislike about home? What is the emotional truth?
  • How did you feel about your parents? Their behavior? The rule? Discipline?
  • What was your favorite place? Favorite toy? Favorite book? Favorite television shows?
  • How did your family celebrate birthdays, graduation, Christmas, New Years, and so forth?
  • What is your fondest memory about home? What is your saddest memory about?
  • Was your home temporary or permanent? Did you live in a house, trailer, apartment?

When writing about home, use the following literary techniques:

  • Sensory imagery. Use language that appeals to the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing.
  • Concrete and specific description. Use telling details, particular and significant details, which help the reader imagine your home.
  • Don’t tell your readers, show them what was your home. You can use a scene to write about home, revealing significant details. Example: Each night after work, my father would slouch in  a tattered, brown lazy boy, sip his rye and seven-up, one drink after another, until he was drunk. He’d smoke his Export-A cigarettes, one after another, until the pack was empty.  If there was a baseball game, or hockey game, or football game on the television, he’d watch and swear and scream like a madman.

The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction

Writing about home and family from a creative nonfiction perspective involves:

  • Real Life– Writing about real people, family actual events, and actual places, such as home, neighborhood, school, work, community.
  • Research– Collecting facts from the library, interviews, diaries, journals, photographs.
  • Writing-Writing literary journalism essays, autobiographies, or biographies.
  • Reflection-Sharing personal thoughts, feelings, perspectives.
  • Reading-Read autobiographies,  biographies, and other informative books about the world in which you live. By doing this, you learn how others have written about family and home. Three good memoirs to read are The Liars Club, Angela’s Ashes, The Glass Castle.

 

Creating or Reconstructing the Experience

When writing about home and family, your task is not to “create” a narrative, it is to “reconstruct” a narrative, based on facts. Often you’ll rely on memory to reconstruct the details. You’ll visit the places of your past, which will stir memories. You will interview others who grew up with you, such as other family members or friends. You’ll look at old photo albums, videos, journals, mementos, and so forth As well, you’ll share personal reflections and emotional truth. Emotional truth answers the question: How did you feel?

You’ll structure your story as a narrative. A narrative includes a beginning, middle and an end. Most writers use “the narrative arc” to structure a narrative about home and family. The narrative arc includes the inciting incident, setbacks and obstacles, conflict, climax or turning point, and resolution.

How do you reconstruct a narrative? You have several ways:

  • Recover your memories
  • Interviews with other family members
  • Read old diaries
  • Look through old photo albums,
  • Watch family videos
  • Revisiting the places where you grew up.
  • Speculate–When you don’t know, you can speculate how it might have been.
  • Immerse yourself in an experience from the past.

Creative Writing Techniques

Use these techniques to write about home and family:

  • Scene and summary (Show and tell). When you write in a scene, you “show the reader what happened.” For all major events, write a scene. A scene include setting, action (something happens), dialogue (not always), concrete and specific details, and a beginning, middle, and ending. When you write in summary, you tell the reader what happened. It involves compression and explanation, rather than “showing” the reader.
  • Personal Reflections-Include personal thoughts, meditations, contemplations.
  • Emotional Truth-Include your own feelings. How did it feel to you?
  • Inner Point of View-Use the “I” point of view.
  • Intimate Details-Include telling details. These are details that the writer cannot imagine unless you share them in your writing.
  • Storytelling-Use the narrative arc to structure your story. The narrative arc includes these components: inciting incident, conflict, setbacks and obstacles, climax, resolution, often an epiphany.
  • Figurative language-Spice up your narrative with simile, metaphor, imagery, symbolism.

For more information on how to write about home and family, read the following:

  • The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
  • The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr
  • Tell it Slant Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
  • You Can’t Make this Stuff Up by Lee Gutkind
  • Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
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2 Comments

  1. jmanlowe says:

    Thank you so much for your always bright ideas! I especially love “The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction!”

    Writing about home and family involves:

    Real Life – Writing about real people, family actual events, and actual places, such as home, neighborhood, school, work, community.
    Research – Collecting facts from the library, interviews, diaries, journals, photographs.
    Writing – Writing literary journalism essays, autobiographies, or biographies.
    Reflection – Sharing personal thoughts, feelings, perspectives.
    Reading – Read autobiographies, biographies, and other informative books about the world in which you live. By doing this, you learn how others have written about family and home.

    I will be sure to share this with my memoir clients. If you’d like to be a guest blogger on my website, please let me know. Thanks.

  2. amaya ellman says:

    Reblogged this on amaya ellman and commented:
    An excellent post from Finding Your Creative Muse.

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