Why You Should Let Your Family Read Your Memoir in Advance

I had a conversation recently with a friend whose debut memoir is coming out soon, about the dread he feels at the idea of his father reading his book. I think pretty much every memoirist faces a version of this critical moment—when we have to face the fact that all of the vulnerable, private stuff we somehow convinced ourselves to pour onto the page is about to be a real book in the world, and people (even people we know!) are going to read it. Most of us feel some version of “oh shit” or “what have I done,” even if we’re proud of the work and mostly excited about it being published.

“Better to just let him read it now,” I said. “Get it over with, so you’re not dealing with his reaction and the whole public reception at the same time.”

My friend nodded like he was considering this advice but also probably not going to follow it, and asked, “Is that what you did with yours?”

“No!” I answered, and we both laughed.

When my memoir, Negative Space, was on its way into the world a few years ago, I dreaded my mother’s reaction. I was already such a ball of nerves, preoccupied by all the usual book-publishing concerns about reviews and sales and being so horrendously seen, the idea of a big emotional family reckoning with parts of our shared past that we’d never spoken about felt like too much to handle.

I knew that my mother would not agree with how I’d characterized some aspects of her tumultuous relationship with my father, and their addictions to heroin during my childhood, let alone how I characterized my hostile relationship with her during my teen years. I didn’t want to get pulled into relitigating our lifelong conflicts by sharing a draft with her. So I didn’t. I let my mother read the book when it came out, along with everyone else.

And I realized quickly that I’d gone about it all wrong, and my avoidance had actually made things worse.

When she finally read the book, my mother was hurt by some of the bigger elements of the story I told, as I expected she probably would be. But she was also hurt by some little details that felt almost insignificant to me. An example that sticks in my mind: She didn’t like that I referred to my loft bed in the studio apartment we shared when I was a teenager as being “above the kitchen.” It was next to the kitchen, she argued. Yes, I could sit up in bed and look down at the top of the fridge, but the space directly under my loft bed was not the kitchen—I had a desk under there, and a little storage bench. She felt that I was exaggerating how cramped the space was (and how poor we were) by saying that my bed was “above” the kitchen. I laughed when she pushed back on this little  detail. Of all the fraught, painful things in the book, this was what she had a problem with?

Even though I was writing from my own perspective and not attempting to speak for the other people, it would have felt strange not to involve them at least a little bit in how our relationships were portrayed.

But I also felt a twinge of regret. It would not have compromised the integrity of my story to change “above” to “next to.” I would have been happy to make that change, in fact, if it made her more comfortable with the story as a whole. But because I didn’t share the manuscript with her ahead of time, it was too late to make that adjustment, or any of the other small edits that might have softened the blow of the larger, hard-to-read story.

I carried this lesson with me into my second book, First Love, by taking the opposite approach and sharing pages with everyone I wrote about. Knowing this was the right way to go about it didn’t make it easier. Frankly, I dreaded this part of the process. But every time I felt apprehensive about sharing an essay with someone in my life, I remembered that conversation with my mother; how I never could have predicted the details that would bother her most, and how easy they would have been to change if I’d shown it to her early enough.

With this project especially it made sense to bring the people I’d written about into the process—First Love is a collection of essays about friendship, with each piece delving into a different close relationship in my life. Even though I was writing from my own perspective and not attempting to speak for the other people, it would have felt strange not to involve them at least a little bit in how our relationships were portrayed. So I shared the essays, and invited conversation. I even shared an essay with an ex-friend who I hadn’t spoken to in years. That one was the most fraught conversation, but still worth it for the peace of mind.

Importantly, sharing drafts doesn’t have to mean you promise to change anything. This, I think, is what trips a lot of writers up when they think about sharing work with their loved ones before it’s published—myself included. The first time around, I intentionally waited until it was too late to make any changes before sharing the memoir with my mother, so I could shrug and say it was out of my hands if she had any problems with it. But of course that wasn’t true—it was a choice to wait until it was too late. And for me, it was the wrong one.

If I had shared it with her sooner, I could have changed “above” to “next to,” and still also declined to make any bigger changes that would have compromised the story I was trying to tell. It’s not all or nothing, and just because someone doesn’t like something doesn’t mean you have to change it—even if it’s early enough that you still technically could.

I didn’t promise to change anything, but I remained open to the idea, especially when it came to details about experiences that are primarily theirs.

The important thing, I think, is to be clear with yourself, ahead of time, what and how much you’re willing to change—and for whom—before you share work pre-publication. How you present the work you’re sharing can differ from person to person. And of course, there are cases where sharing drafts at any stage really isn’t worth it—I am definitely not advising anyone to invite conversation with their abusers, or other people who they are necessarily holding at arm’s length.

When sharing the essays from First Love, I thought about these conversations as falling into a few different categories:

In one essay, I wrote about being there for a friend when her fiancé died by suicide. Since that was primarily her experience, I gave her complete veto power over the essay. When I shared it with her, I told her that I would make any changes she wanted me to—up to and including cutting the essay from the book entirely if she was at all uncomfortable with it. (She didn’t have any objections, but did give one helpful note.) But most people did not get that much leeway.

In most cases, I asked the people I shared essays with to let me know if there were “any specific details that you’re uncomfortable with” (to indicate that I wasn’t going to change the entire scope of the piece, but that I might be willing to make some minor adjustments). I didn’t promise to change anything, but I remained open to the idea, especially when it came to details about experiences that are primarily theirs. (For example, I wrote about two friends and I going through breakups at the same time, and would absolutely have changed my brief characterizations of their experiences if they felt like I’d gotten them wrong, or even just shared more detail than they wanted me to.) These conversations led to a couple of extremely small changes that I was happy to make—they didn’t limit my ability to tell the stories I was trying to tell in the slightest.

In a couple of cases, I presented the preview as “just giving you a heads up,” making it clear that the essays were finished. In these cases, too, I probably would have made minor changes to keep the peace, if they were on the scale of the “above” vs. “next to” distinction my mother made. But by presenting it this way, I made it clear that I was not looking for every detail that these people would have described differently. This—sharing the work early so that at the very least, I can get people’s reactions out of the way before the nerve-fraying experience of publication is fully underway—is now my bare minimum baseline.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” I asked myself when I was feeling anxious about people’s reactions. The entire book had already been vetted by my publisher’s legal team, so legal action—the boogie monster of memoir reactions—was not in play. Really, the worst that could happen was that someone could be mad at me. But, like I told my friend recently, if someone’s going to be angry about your book, they’ll be angry whether they read it in advance or not. And your emotions will be running high enough right around your book launch—you don’t need to deal with personal blowback. Better to get it out the way.

Join Lilly Dancyger on July 21 for “Telling Shared Stories,” a one-day class on the ethics and logistics of writing about other people in memoir.


First Love: Essays on Friendship - Dancyger, Lilly

Excerpted from First Love: Essays on Friendship by Lilly Dancyger. Copyright © 2024 by Lilly Dancyger. Used by permission of The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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