Exploring Relationships in Memoir

We’re all social beings. 

Even if you’re introverted like me, there are valuable relationships in our lives that are a huge part of our stories. We need other people in our lives to fill a variety of roles: romantic, platonic, health professional, parent and child, teacher and student/mentor, companionship…

It’s in these relationships that we find value. Some bring us joy; others serve a specific purpose. 

Because everyone has relationships, it’s important to capture the realities of the relationships in your story in a way that people understand and can relate with—positive or negative. Some past examples of relationship dynamics I have seen captured in memoir include:

  • The role of mentor a teacher has played in the life of a student
  • The value of a coach in achieving someone’s goals
  • The strain of an unhealthy relationship with their partner
  • The complexity of the parent-child dynamic
  • How love changes and evolves between two people over time
  • Trauma associated with a family history of abuse

Your memoir can be about any number of topics, but it is guaranteed to involve relationships with others. Why? Well, unless you live by yourself, in the middle of nowhere, chances are, you will interact with people (even during pandemic times). 

We all know relationships are complex, so it shouldn’t surprise you that writing about them can often be challenging. Be considerate in how you portray a relationship in your writing. Someone reading your story is only getting a glimpse of a person so be sure that it’s clear, especially if that person is involved in a negative scene. Even the mildest mannered of us are guilty of having negative reactions, so if your relationship with this person is neutral, be sure to provide context so that people understand the reason behind their reaction and not assume the worst based on that one situation. 

Tip: When writing your memoir, take some time to jot down every relationship you’re exploring in your manuscript.

You can do this in a table or just on a scrap of paper, freehand. Note the chapters/scenes this particular person appears in and whether it is a positive, negative, or neutral scene. Then add up how many positives, negatives, and neutrals you have associated with that particular person—does it reflect the overall emotion you wish to convey?

Protecting Relationships

One of the biggest worries people have when they decide to write their memoir is the effect that it may have on their existing relationships. They worry that they will be judged or even disowned for sharing their story. Sadly, this can be an unfortunate reality to speaking your truth, but before you write off that relationship completely, there are a number of ways that you can help to protect existing relationships in the process of sharing your story.

Know Your Motive

Even the best intentions can still hurt (intent does not absolve from responsibility!), but if you are clear on your motives for including a certain relationship in the story, you can make sure that it is both necessary as well as intentional. For example, you may discover that you don’t need to write in a certain scene, thereby eliminating or reducing harm. If inclusion is necessary, being certain with your motive will strengthen your resolve when you do share your story.

Stay Focused

Share only what you need to share and what is absolutely essential to tell your story. Resist the urge to include a side story for the sake of including someone, if it doesn’t serve your focus. So, if the focus of your memoir is on your role as an ER nurse, be sure to examine all of the scenes that take place outside of the hospital. Are they all needed? Some will be, as they’ll speak to who you are as a person, but others may be distracting from the focus and can be cut.

Be Realistic

Our memories can trick us and are not always accurate. Look back at the context of the relationship and be sure to provide it to your readers. We all have said and done things that we aren’t proud of, but give your readers some credit—they will understand that context matters and someone’s reaction can be shaped by the situation, making them less likely to judge that person based on a small part of your story. Please note: This advice pertains to your neutral and positive relationships. If you are writing about a toxic relationship, you do not have to provide justification for your abuser’s actions.

Assess the Risk

If you’re worried about how people will react to being included in your story (note to self: excellent topic for another blog post!), you can conduct a risk assessment. This is very important and it’s something that only you can do. Here’s how to do that:

  1. Create a table with the following columns: Person, Role in Life, Role in Story, Chapters, Reaction, Possible Outcomes
  2. For each person, you’ll identify both what role they play in your life (e.g., close friend, family member, distant cousin, neighbour, none) and what role they play in your story (e.g., first person to bully you, support person, enabler, abuser).
  3. Next, you’ll want to identify what chapters they appear in, so you can see how much of your memoir they are a part of.
  4. After that’s done, take a moment to anticipate how they’ll react to your memoir. Do you know? Reactions can include: supportive/encouraging, neutral, and unsupportive/negative. Remember that, at this stage, this is an assumption.
  5. Lastly, what are the outcomes of moving forward with your story, knowing the person’s reaction? Examples here can include: none, legal action, ending relationship.

Once you’ve done the risk assessment, highlight the people with anticipated negative reactions and evaluate the possible outcomes. Do they make up enough of your story (i.e., is their role pivotal to your memoir’s focus/message) to justify the risk? If so, you should consider having a conversation with that person, if it is safe to do so.

Your Story Involves Other People

Effectively representing the relevant relationships will make your story more relatable and provide important context. You don’t live in a bubble, and who you are is influenced by others. Taking the time to consider how they are represented in your story will add to your memoir’s authenticity.