How to Write About the People You Love

"What did you do to rebel?" A writer friend asked me this one night, over a glass of wine, after she had listened to a bunch of stories about my messed-up teenage years living in a very dysfunctional household.

"Nothing," I said.

"Nothing? No crazy drug use? No going out and sleeping with a bunch of older guys?"

"No. I mean, I was really focused on graduating early so I could get the hell out of there."

She didn't understand. This was far from her life's story, which was full of rebellion.

"You have to bear in mind," I said, "the adults in my life were the ones doing irresponsible things. So I didn't want to be like them. I didn't want to do what they were doing."

"Well," she said, "I think in your story, you're being too protective of your mother."

That hit home. She was referring to an oral storytelling piece that's still in progress that only minimally mentions my mother. "Why are you protecting your mother?"

"My mother's a good person," I said. "There are a bunch of twists and turns in this particular story that don't make her look great, but that's not the complete person. It would be unfair and not true to only show those things without giving mention to the fact that she did a lot of stuff right, particularly in raising me and my sisters."

"You don't have to protect her. This is your story. There are people in my family who won't even talk to me anymore because of things I've written or performed, but fuck them. They have to deal with that."

I have yet to figure out how to write personal, emotional, evocative, engaging stories without exposing the people I love. I struggle with it a lot.

Sometimes I want a pen name, an ounce of anonymity, just so I can say what I really feel about people, positively, negatively, and with the full complexity of the emotional relationship as I have experienced it.

But it feels so unfair to expose someone like that. My storytelling is only one point of view. Stories help us make meaning, and so my portrayal of a person in my life is my way of making meaning of that person, or my relationship with him or her. But it doesn't allow them to have any voice or representation.

Any other writers out here: How do you handle this?