Monday, September 14, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking X

Are our families fair game?

Every essay writer faces this at some point. Families make great stories. When we write about our families, do we owe them anything?

I thought about this issue a lot in the last week. Sue Shapiro’s essay brought it up. Hers is an essay that reveals quite a bit about her husband and his pack rat tendencies. And I’ve also faced it in my own Essay of the Month, "Reading Forever with Boys" which is about my son.

What do we owe our families when we write about them?

Sue handles the issue nicely by portraying her husband as somewhat whacky but ultimately lovable. Among the items he hoards are 100 personalized yarmulkes from their wedding. Awwwwwwww. So while the essay reveals some personal stuff, it’s not bad stuff. Also, her husband is a writer and presumably familiar with what goes into a personal essay. If he got a lot of emails on Sunday morning ribbing him for his pack rat-itis, he probably wasn’t surprised. He knows how the game is played.

So what about my son, who is 14? Can he consent – with true understanding – to appearing in my personal essays? I’ve written about him before. Here’s one that I’m particularly proud of:

And I’m working on another one now that features my daughter – and my long-standing phobia about cheerleaders.

Writers have long leveraged their families for material. But this is the age of the Internet. As I say to my children when they post on Facebook or other social networks: the Internet is forever. What you post today can be Googled for a long, long time.

I know an essayist whose policy is don’t ask, don’t apologize. “I don’t need permission to write about my life,” she says. Even if other people are in it? “They can write their own memoirs.”

I see her point, but I’m not willing to go there. I let my family read before I hit send. My children read essays that feature them before I send them out. My husband blessed my essay on Green Sex before it went out for public viewing. Because maybe I don’t need permission to write about my life. But I do want their okay to write about theirs.

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