Family dynamics are difficult enough to grasp, let alone write about. But when properly explored, they make for powerful stories.
Here’s a few rules I follow when writing about my family:
1. Empathy, Always
My number one rule for writing about family dynamics is: always do it with empathy.
Human beings are seldom monsters. They do harm each other because of unresolved trauma, emotions they were never permitted to feel, and pressures that were too much too soon. When we fail to acknowledge this in our stories, we’re only telling them by half.
You don’t have to dive into the details of Grandpa’s PTSD and subsequent struggle with substance abuse to explain the nuances of your father’s self-absorption, but Grandpa’s inability to be emotionally present with him must be a part of your explanation of who he is as a human being.
You don’t have to reprint every malignancy Grandma used to whittle mom’s soul down so that she always feels less than. But if you’re going to tell us that mom perceives everything said to her as some thinly veiled slight meant to rob her of confidence, you have to explain why.
Empathy is the practice of standing hand in hand with our characters—allowing them to be human and relatable—and no story about family dynamics is even decent without it.
2. Write Angry, Then Refine
Families aren’t designed to be fair. They can be infuriating, and they can leave you feeling bitter and bruised. When we deny we’re angry, we kiss our truth goodbye.
I always write my rough drafts with as much anger as I can muster—even if I know it’s irrational—because I believe anger is respect for self. And without self, you just don’t have a story. When I refine that rough draft, and edit out the irrational bits, what’s left behind is just the right amount of vulnerability.
3. Avoid The Clinical
If you’re writing about your family, odds are you’ve already sought therapy to deal with them. You may have picked up diagnostic terms from your therapist. Don’t use them.
It’s all well and good to know your Aunt Grace is codependent with her son, your mother is slightly borderline, your Dad is a narcissist, and your brother has bipolar disorder—and it can be comforting to lean on a therapist’s knowledge when the holidays are nigh—but fact is: clinical diagnoses are boring, unemotional, and reductive. People are more complex than the collection of traits they embody when stressed.
Your Thanksgiving story packs more punch if you simply retell what you saw and felt. Your mother threw a tray of green bean casserole at your father over a perceived slight, and your father was more upset over the stain on his expensive shirt than the emotional impact the outburst had on his loved ones. Your Aunt Grace launched into a rant because everyone upset her nearly 40-year-old son who still lives her basement, and your brother laughed maniacally at it all because he was stoned on pills and had been awake for three days straight. As a result, you felt [insert emotion]. That’s good writing.
4. Dig Deep
What do you really want to say about your family? Don’t ask your prefrontal cortex. Ask your gut. That’s where the answer to that question really lies.
How did your gut feel when your mother threw the beans and huffed off? What went on in there when your dad stormed out the back door to go play with his toys like an infant?
So often we control the way we feel with our thoughts, rationalizing them into something more acceptable (and controllable) when the real story is roiling below. Nobody wants to read the acceptable story. They want the meat. Give it to them.
5. Follow Your Fear
Have you ever written about your family with nausea in your stomach, typing out sentences, deleting them out of fear and then typing them again? Have you ever thought, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly say that. You’re not supposed to say things like that about family.”
Good. Who gives a crap about what they’re supposed to say?
Family dysfunction feeds on our secrets. It is nurtured by our silence. It rolls, storm-like, through generation after generation—feasting on souls and leaving a wasteland in its wake—and the only thing that stops it dead in its tracks is truth.
If there is fear in the pit of your stomach when you write about your family, then follow it. Honor it. That fear means that what you’re writing about is honest and therefore relevant. And if you’re not interested in relevance—if you’re only interested in saying what has already been said—then don’t bother writing about your family.
We don’t need to read it.
Over a celebrated twenty-year design career, Erin Tyler has designed book covers for multiple New York Times bestselling authors, such as James Altucher, Ryan Holiday, David Goggins, and Tucker Max. She is a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology and is currently the creative director at Scribe Media. Erin is the author of the Amazon best-selling book, The Bad One: A Memoir About Growing Up a Goat.