Writing memoir doesn’t come without fallout of one kind or another. I write about myself and my feelings and experiences. And I get a lot of good feedback from objective sources for doing so. People relate to it and thank me for putting into words the things they’ve held back or buried over time. Because it’s easier, sometimes, recognizing yourself in someone else’s story when giving voice to your own can be so painful and feel so risky.
Why risky? Because when you write about your life, other people are featured in the story, and our instinct is to keep private things private.
Well, let’s not be disingenuous here — for those of us among the emotionally wounded, the PTSD sufferers, the mentally ill — privacy has usually been drilled into us from a young age. It’s that stifling environment, where expressions of discord or discussions of fears or ‘working on relationships’, were either not the status quo or were entirely verboten that helped to pack up all that emotional baggage and lock it away.
Memoir writing is cathartic. I mean, that’s the appeal, right? That’s what drives the writer to write; to un-cork the bottle and spill out its contents, while hopefully painting them with a careful brush into something that inspires or resonates with the audience.
But it takes courage to air your dirty laundry out for the world to see. Not so much because of the fear of letting people inside, or because you open yourself up to judgement — strangers knowing your business is actually less intimidating than you might expect — but because the ghosts from your past often aren’t content to stay ghosts.
“Men’s memoirs are about answers; women’s memoirs are about questions. Most male authors want to look good in their memoirs and have a place in posterity, while most women know that posterity is what happens when you no longer care. Women want to connect with others here and now; they couldn’t care less about legacy!” — Isabel Allende
Memoir writing tends to be (for me) a lot about emotional processing. Certainly at its root, a memoir needs to contain an event or series of events, whether unique or uniquely told, but it’s the emotional connection that differentiates memoir from autobiography. Which is not to say that memoirs aren’t based in fact; but those facts are tempered by perspective. Does this make the author an unreliable narrator? Maybe. But I would argue that reliability of the facts isn’t the most important goal: honesty of intent is.
My mantras for memoir writing are as follows:
- Make it YOUR story.
- Be honest.
- Be fair.
That’s it. As for as making it your story, it’s crucial to remember that the other players are really there to serve a purpose: as tools to tell your story. As such, the basis for their inclusion should always be as a means to move the story forward and/or to allow the reader to learn more about you.
“I think most memoirs, though they purport to be about this particular time or this person you met, are really about the effect that person or time had on you.” — Rosemary Mahoney
That’s not to say they don’t have value as human beings! Of course they do; but we’re talking about story-writing here, and these people probably didn’t consent or want to be written about. But I believe fundamentally that as long as I stick to the rules/mantras, I have a right to re-tell my life. Because who else has a right to tell my story if not me?
Honesty is one of those things you will undoubtedly be challenged on. In disseminating life events for my readers I ultimately let them decide for themselves: When I have objective facts or markers, I say so; when I am making assumptions or interpretations, I say so; and I temper everything with reminders that my recollections are subjective at best. That’s the nature of the beast. My reality may not be the reality, but it is mine. About that there is no deception.
As for fairness, the things above are part of that, but it’s also about representing all the players in a balanced way. I try to keep #1 in mind in the retelling of every interaction. I keep it about me. And I don’t mean that in an egotistical way, but rather that the goal isn’t to tell anyone else’s truth — it’s about telling your own. And doing that fairly means a) being honest about what you know, b) being truthful about what actually happened, c) being honest about what you don’t know, d) being honest about perspective and how that influences your recollection, and e) acknowledging that the people around you are human and are going through their own shit.
That last one is pretty important. If you feel it’s necessary to represent someone else on paper in order to tell your story, you have a responsibility to treat them like a multi-faceted, fallible human being. You need to cut them some slack. Even if they hurt you or did a crummy thing, you need to avoid crucifying them. For one thing, it’s pretty doubtful that anyone is 100% evil. Or even evil at all. I’m damaged and I’ve hurt people because of that. Ergo the people who’ve hurt me were probably hurt themselves.
If you’re going to tell about the bad things a person did to you, you have to also tell about the good things. If you don’t, you’re a shitty person; because that’s not fair. You’re also a shitty writer; because this isn’t a fairy tale where you’re the hero and everyone else is the bad guy. Which is why, to be fair, you need to lay out your demons as well. Because what is the point of writing memoir over fiction if you’re not going to at least try to be honest?
Unfortunately, whether you’re ethical about it or not, people probably aren’t going to thank you for writing about them. So why do it? Why put yourself out there and open yourself up to criticism or recrimination from the people from your past?
For me, there are a few different motivations. Firstly I should point out that writing about my relationships was a last resort. When you try for years to mend fences (or at least try to figure out why they’re broken) and you continually run up against a brick wall, it’s not very satisfying emotionally. Those feelings need to go somewhere. I needed resolution and I wasn’t getting any. Also, it was about breaking unhealthy patterns: I grew up in a family where a) we didn’t talk about our emotions and b) because I was mentally ill, a lot of the conflict was blamed on my mental instability. Those two in combination do a number on your self-esteem.
Memoir isn’t the only writing I’ve done. I’ve written a novel and a book of poetry, and there are other books in progress. But it’s the stories of my past that keep forcing their way to the surface. I can’t move on until those are dealt with and filed away.
Which explains my need to write and to process, but why make things public?
Well… I’m a writer, not a diarist. It’s what I do and has always felt essential to my existence (emo but also true), and a crucial part of being a writer is the interaction between writer and reader. I also really truly believe that I have a responsibility to speak up and out because not everyone feels similarly able. For those who for whatever reason, be it personal or professional, can’t face the risk of exposing themselves, it’s important that there are beacons of light that shine in the darkness to let them know that they’re not alone. When you’ve suffered abuse or neglect, when you’ve suffered depression or loneliness, it helps to know that you’re not alone.
Sharing stories has long been society’s collective coping mechanism. We feel an inherent need to connect and understand. Sharing experiences helps us heal emotionally, and when we read about the experiences of others, it gives us insight into our own.
So I’ll keep writing about my life, even if it risks alienating the people from my past. Because the reality is that those people removed themselves from my life long before I started writing, and holding up the writing as the reason is dishonest and re-writing history.
Re-writing history isn’t what I intend to do. I want to write about it, attempt to understand it, and then tuck it away where it can’t hurt me anymore.