self portrait | autobiographical writing

How to Write About Yourself and People You Know: Interview with Margo Perin

In this wide-ranging and honest interview, Writers.com instructor Margo Perin explores navigating writing about our own lives, and about the people we know.

Below is a selected interview transcript:

What are the first things people should know about navigating writing their own stories?

Often people are motivated to write because they want to write about themselves. And the only way to really become a good writer is to tell the truth. We always have to figure out, How can I tell the truth? How can I do that in a way that’s accessible and interesting to the reader?

So I always say, just write whatever you want to write at first. Write as if nobody’s ever going to read it. Just get it all down, and you’ll see the material you want to deal with.

Write whatever you want to write at first. Write as if nobody’s ever going to read it. Just get it all down, and you’ll see the material you want to deal with.

Then you have some decisions to make. Do you want to write under your own name, or use a pseudonym? Do you want to write in the first person, or the second person—or the third person, as if you’re writing about someone else, and then you can call it “fiction”? And do you want to change any of the identifying characteristics of you, or the other people, or the experiences that you’re writing about? These are all decisions that help you be able to tell the truth.

How do you navigate the balance between telling the truth and protecting your relationships in your own autobiographical writing?

I do think about this a lot. Oscar Wilde said, “The best revenge is to write about people.” Ultimately, we’re not writers to hurt people. And it’s not very honest—because we don’t want to be hurt. It’s good to think, Would I want someone to write this about me in such an unkind way? How would I feel?

For my own health, I do have to be true to myself. So write, and then find a way where it protects you. And I really do think we should protect the people we know. We don’t really have the right to hurt other people.

Write, and then find a way where it protects you and the people you know. We don’t really have the right to hurt other people.

So think about using other names, disguising their characteristics. My own decisions to protect my family members have included not mentioning their names, and calling my book a novel. I know that David Sedaris uses composite characters, although I wouldn’t do that personally. And we can always write and not publish.

If you’re writing a work about an acquaintance you care about, you might want to mention to them that you’re writing it, and that it’s very much from your point of view—and welcome them to write about their point of view. People see things very, very differently, and that’s comforting to a writer.

And if you’re ambivalent about writing about others, I think it’s really good to include that in the story, because it’s so real and so honest. And I think it’s also innovative to ask those questions in the story you’re writing. Life is not really cut-and-dried, so the more you can put that ambiguity on the page, the stronger the work is. The world is wide open to a writer.

How do we know whether to approach a certain topic in autobiographical writing?

One way of looking at it is, What would it be if you didn’t tell your truth?

One way of looking at it is, What would it be if you didn’t tell your truth? Not everybody lives an extreme life where the consequences of not being who you are are terrible, but for some people the consequences are terrible.

I do advise my students about that: what’s going to be more healthy for you, writing about this or not? I teach gang members in prisons, and they follow a code where they’re not supposed to talk about anything, and if they do they could be killed. So then it’s about how to help them write so that they can express themselves from deep down but not break the code.

But then on the other extreme is, If I don’t write about how much I hate this person for rejecting me, what are the consequences of that? Writing that might get it out of you, but you’ll use up a lot of energy in the process. Wouldn’t you rather just write something that’ll help heal the world?

I don’t think there’s a hard-and-fast anything; just use your intuition as much as you can. In my autobiographical novel, when I was writing as if I was a victim, my stomach hurt. And I realized, You know what, I was really mean too. So I wrote that side as well, and that’s why I felt that material would not be hurtful. It also made the writing better.

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Could you say more about the role of intuition in autobiographical writing?

I would say “Take your head off, and write from your body.” Our bodies do tell us when we’re doing the right thing. I do exercises in my classes where you tune into your body and think about a time when you made a decision that was really right for it. Where do you feel it, and why did you get that feeling at that time? It’s usually a neutral feeling; you just know it’s right. On the other hand, when you have a lot of fuzz about something, a lot of static about it—when we protest too much, it’s because we know it’s not right.

The big question is, What is going to be healing for me, and healing for other people and the world?

The big question is, What is going to be healing for me, and healing for other people and the world? And it has to be honest. If you’re writing to put out meaning, you have to be honest.

Everybody has the right to our story. I think that’s something we as writers need to reflect on: Do I have the right to tell my story? And I think we all do, because our story is our story. The more people tell our own stories from our point of view and the more honest we can be, the more we access our own humanity, and we can commune with other people’s humanity.

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