When you’re writing about your past, how do you predict how family will react to your stories? Anticipating loved ones reactions can help you decide what to share and with whom you want to share it.
Sunny Morton recently brought up this point as we were recording a podcast for Genealogy Gems (link coming soon). Some people write what they view as innocuous stories. They’re surprised to find their memories raise family members’ hackles.
Memories of Me: A Complete Guide to Telling and Sharing the Stories of Your Life addresses how to balance telling your stories with the need to keep peace in the family. However, first you need to gauge loved ones’ reactions. (Confession: During the podcast, my response was something like “Hmmm, I’ll have to think about that.” Well, now I have…)
Generational Values and How Family Will React to Your Stories
As the decades have marched by, our values have changed. Understanding generational differences can help avoid surprises. A great resource for this is the Generational Differences Chart posted by West Midlands Family Center.
Recently during a workshop, one elderly woman told a story of trying to collapse a crate of expired yogurt by jumping on it. As the crate collapsed, yogurt exploded out of it and up her skirt. The other ladies in the room were a little scandalized. Through their laughter, they admitted that telling embarrassing stories doesn’t come easily to them.
We need a second yardstick. How private are the people in our lives? How easily are they embarrassed? How sensitive are they to criticism?
For many of us, “mom” or “dad” is at the core of our identity. Sometimes, however, there’s an understood “perfect” in front of that label. Even though parents know that was an unachievable ideal, they don’t react well to public criticism from the child in question.
To know how family will react to your stories, ask questions! Writing the stories of your life is about connecting. However, not all that connecting has to take place on the written page. Start a conversation. Ask. Looking back, do they feel like they did everything right?
Naming the Elephant
You might think that everyone in the family is well aware of the elephant in the room. Thus, naming it seems like a relatively small thing. But, if you’re the only one—or the first one—to call it out, that’s a red flag. Perhaps there’s a family reluctance to face the beast.
Passage of Time
Time doesn’t cure all wounds, but it often makes them less sensitive. When you contemplate how family will react to your stories, consider how much time has passed. Sometimes the wounds are simply too fresh.
The Intersection of Your Story and Others’ Stories
Does your writing spread understanding or blame? Have you acknowledged others’ stories? Have you painted a black and white picture of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders, or have you helped readers understand the complexity of your past? For instance, if you grew up in a dysfunctional family, admitting that other family members were struggling with their own demons gives dimension and shades of grey to your story. A hard look at the tone of your writing will help you predict how family members will react to your stories and memories.
The Next Step
Predicting and understanding how family will react to your stories, can also help you tell them. Not only are you in a better position to make informed decisions, you’ve gained more insight into your past. And that takes us back to the book…