When a Writer is Born Into a Family, the Family is F’d

by Sam van Zweden

The impulse to write about our families is a strong one. For those writers who use their own life as material (which I think describes the majority of writers at NonfictioNOW in some way), those lives intertwine with the lives of others – often our families are implicated in our writing. Sometimes the writing is about the family.

The latter is the case for the writers who made up the panel for ‘When a Writer is Born Into a Family, the Family is F’d’. The panel covered ideas of permission, reactions, and the writer’s changed relationships to writing and their family post-publication.

A nice change of pace to the papers delivered at most other sessions of the conference, this panel was a more traditional discussion lead by a chair who put questions to the speakers. What each of the speakers seemed to have in common was a driving motivation rooted in the idea of speaking out – against shame, against silence, against misunderstanding. “Unpacking shame in nonfiction is the frontline battle for so many of us,” said Amy Monticello. David Carlin spoke of writing against the silence surrounding his father’s suicide, and the “unspoken, but completely known” rule which kept his family from talking about it.

I haven’t seen a public discussion of the repercussions of publishing memoir before – and I’m not sure whether it made me feel better or worse about the prospect of publishing my own work about family. The camaraderie in the room was obvious, and I can only hope that this understanding between writers provides support when the reactions of loved ones are less than ideal.

Sue Silverman spoke about the positive feedback she’d received about her books – memoirs of incest and sex addiction – expressing gratitude that she was able to help strangers. “You put your voice out in the world,” she said, “And voices will come back to you.”

The strongest take-away that came from this panel for me is that even though a narrative needs to be rounded off in order to fit between covers and be put out into the world, the stories these writers have shared continue to exist long after we put their books down. Trauma, recovery, ongoing battles – speaking out against shame and silence. These are continuing realities for those who have opened their lives to us through writing.

Sam’s attendance at NonfictioNOW 2015 was kindly supported by the UNESCO Melbourne City of Literature travel fund.

When a Writer is Born Into a Family, the Family is F’d

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