In talking to people who keep stopping short before they dive deeply into writing their memoir, I often find the biggest block is the worry about what people will think. Personal writing is such a spiritual activity, I understand that when we put something down on paper, we’re almost recreating it, or bringing it to life anew. This is such a hard part of writing memoir.
As empathic, sensitive humans, of course we don’t want to hurt the ones we love. If we’re writing about a particular event or time in our lives which closely involved our families, this might be even more of a dilemma.
Memoir has the power to really pull readers into our hearts and souls for the very reason that we’re honestly exposing how we felt and why we made the decisions we did, in intense detail, at particularly challenging or exciting times in our lives. This is what gives memoir its power. But the fear of hurting people by writing them into our stories can stop us short from giving our memoir the commitment it deserves.
Here’s a few things that have helped me with this dilemma.
1: Remind yourself that no-one is reading the first draft but you
To be ‘free’ enough emotionally, to be honest on the page, you need to write as if no-one is going to read your words. Let that analytical, critical part of your brain wait at the door every morning while you spill out your requisite 500 or 1000 words before you start to think about feeding the dog / making a shopping list / paying the bills. Submerge yourself in your feelings and dive deeply into the descriptions and the scenes as if they won’t be making the final cut anyway – because they probably won’t.
2: Check that enough time has passed since the event
By this I mean – if you’re writing about the death of a loved one, how long has it been since they passed? Critical distance is so necessary for deep writing, because you don’t want to drown in your emotions. Cheryl Strayed wrote WILD over ten years after she finished the trek. I’m not saying you need to wait that long, but critical distance from the immediate pain or rawness of the event is necessary to look at it from a story point of view. Ditto anything major like a divorce or separation. You don’t want grudges or petty gripes to make their way into the book. Remember, the story is more important than the nuances of the small facts. So, for example, if you’re writing about death and grief, what matters is that you get the emotional journey truthfully written, not every detail of what you wore to the funeral.
3: You can never predict what people will think
With my recent memoir, A Letter From Paris, so many other people were involved (and necessary to the story) that I couldn’t be changing names and distinguishing details to save myself from the worry about what different people (or their families) would think of what I wrote.
So I considered each on a case by case basis. First – were they absolutely necessary to my story of learning about my dad? Secondly, was I including the reference out of mere obligation or even spite? If it was either, they got removed. Lastly, and only when I’d got to the final drafts (so I knew what was actually going to be included), did I have their permission to include their words, if it was from a conversation or email?
Before I’d found the letters, library material etc. about dad, I’d only ever had two books which mentioned my dad to use as reference points for his character. So I’m acutely aware of the power of the written word – anecdote, reference, fly-away comments – being used to build up a whole story you might make up about a minor player in a personal story.
But even with the same sentences, people can interpret different things: for example, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in Big Magic that she still gets emails from people who thought Eat, Pray, Love was about her journey back from alcoholism!
After considering each person involved on a case-by-case basis, eventually you need to divorce yourself from outcome. Like any art – it’s not yours once it’s out in the world, anyway 🙂
But if you take one thing from the “what will people think?” dilemma, remember that the first draft has to be for your eyes only. This is the agony draft where we pour everything out on the page – petty grudges or snippy opinions or venting from a minor occasion involved in the journey but all to get to the bare bones of the story, the shape of the thing, which will then be polished and carved into something much, much more beautiful later.
Good memoir writing is never blunt, hurtful, clichéd and vindictive. Readers relate to memoir when the author exposes themselves much more than others – this is why memoir takes courage and vulnerability to write.
But it’s also what makes it so transformational– we figure out our story, and see it clearly, through writing it down.