If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.
— Thumper the rabbit, Disney’s Bambi
It’s Thanksgiving. Don’t be upset.
— Inner Dialogue, Holiday Edition
Never am I more aware of the difficulties of writing about family than when we’re all (well, some of us, and a few people I’ve never met) stacked side-by-side, in a room with only two exits. Between the pass-the-turkey’s and where’s-the-pie’s is a history of I-told-you-so’s and you-never-listen’s and why-aren’t-you-married’s and why-him’s.
My guess is you can relate. Whether your “family” is blood-relatives, long-lost cousins, long-time friends, your coworkers, or roommates, being around a table tends to bring out history and opinions. The tension threatens an explosion.
Which is why it’s so odd that, when we face the blank page, that burst of emotion sizzles. I was ranting to my neighbor just a few minutes ago, but sitting down at the computer, I don’t have anything to type.
Writing honestly about difficult people we love—oftentimes, family members or close friends—can stir up some of the strongest resistance out there. We don’t want to hurt their feelings. We’d rather believe the best and protect them from themselves.
But what if protecting them is not our job?
Nice People Make Bad Writers
In FYV’s Writing to Find Yourself, Ally Fallon writes, “Nice people make bad writers.” Anne Lamott is famous for writing, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better” (Bird by Bird). It’s true. You own your experiences. And you get to be the narrator. It might not be your place to protect them.
But this is not easy. I, for one, watched Bambi as a kid. I took the morals to heart, and I’m going to protect my people. And, if I’m honest, I feel better about myself if I avoid . . . exposing anyone. Even in a private journal. They’re never going to see the journal—but I still feel nervous. I care that I say only what’s nice.
When I refuse to be honest about what I think, I’m not protecting others: I’m protecting myself, trying to keep my own hands clean.
But keeping your hands clean is not the task of writing. Your job is to dig deep and see what you find. What happened? Why do you feel defensive of them? Why do you feel defensive of yourself? What do you want for that relationship?
Ally Fallon writes:
To grow as both people and writers, we have to be willing to tell the truth. . . We have to notice areas where we are holding back—where we aren’t willing to wrestle. We have to be able to admit that every situation is nuanced. Part of surrendering to the process of becoming an authentic writer and an authentic person is allowing ourselves to see people and circumstances as a mixture of good and not-so-good.
What we think you’ll find is that, as you write without impediment, there’s not a good-guy side and bad-guy side. And that can be hard to handle. Uncomfortable at best. And it requires asking tough questions.
Facing the Blank Page
In our opinion, the best place to ask difficult questions is wherever you keep your pen and paper (or, more likely, with your computer open to a blank document). When writing about family, find a place where you feel safe.
Think about the people you love but who you’re frustrated with. Ask yourself,
- What have we each done well?
- Where are there mixed motives?
- What could I have done better?
Or, sometimes even harder to ask:
- What if I’m not a failure?
- What if I made the right choice?
- What if I did my best?
You deserve to have a space to sort through your thoughts and feelings, without the pressure to protect others or justify yourself.
Yes, it costs to write down those honest thoughts. It means facing fears, facing yourself and maybe deciding to apologize or set a new boundary. It’s vulnerable, and it makes you want to invest in better laptop security.
But we promise you this: refusing to write the truth costs you more—it costs you your voice.
Psst. We’re right there with you in the difficulty of truth-telling. Sign up for Monday Motivation for a weekly, reflective writing prompt. Follow the Find Your Voice on Instagram for another weekly writing prompt.
Need help writing during the holidays? Check out our holiday series: