What is the Memoir Writer’s Greatest Fear?

If anyone has done a survey, I don’t know about it. I have no statistics to back me up and couldn’t begin to tell you what fears two through five might be. But thanks to readers’ comments after last week’s post, my own small experience, and some books I’ve read, I’m confident in my claim of knowing the memoir writer’s greatest fear.

My Cringeworthy Experience

A dozen years ago, Natalie Goldberg, revered author of the classic Writing Down the Boneswas teaching a five day writing course at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I love everything Natalie has ever written and had always wanted to visit New Mexico, so I took the course.

If you aren’t familiar with Natalie’s work, her teaching style is to help her students get still and reflective through meditation and then zing them with a timed writing prompt like, “What have you tried to repair? Ten minutes. Go.”

Natalie encouraged us to write fearlessly. She taught us to pay attention to all of our senses and to get fleeting impressions down on paper. To keep us focused on what we were discovering through our writing practice, the only appropriate response to someone else’s work was silence. We honoured that rule when we were with Natalie in the Zen temple, but often broke it when sharing our work in small groups later each day.

On the day that still makes me cringe, we had meditated in the temple and then written for ten minutes about our meditation experience.  I wrote about feeling uncomfortable, inside and out, and about sneaking peeks at other students, all of whom seemed to be content, if not downright blissful. Then I wrote about a nearby woman who was breathing very heavily, and how the light looked coming into the room through an open door.

The heavy breathing woman was in my small group. I read my piece aloud, without a second thought or a moment’s hesitation, and I wounded her. Her voice quivering, she described a lifetime of feeling self-conscious about the way she breathed. The way she saw it, my comment was akin to pointing and laughing at someone in a wheelchair.

Taking the High Road…or Not

I’d love to be able to report that I apologized to the woman, or at least that I gave an impassioned speech about the importance of including telling details as part of writing fearlessly. In reality, I did neither. I feigned surprise and pretended that I had been writing about someone else. The woman didn’t believe me, of course, but she let it go. I hope that, over the years, she has forgotten about that moment. Unfortunately, I never have.

I say unfortunately because that was the day I became more concerned about protecting other people’s feelings than I was about writing fearlessly. And the result of that unconscious decision is that I shut down an energy and a wildness in my writing that I was just on the verge of developing. I’m trying to get that freedom back now. It is difficult.cartoon of old couple, man writing memoir

The Memoir Writer’s Greatest Fear

I got into trouble over a silly little bit of writing practice. It wasn’t memoir, and the woman wasn’t important to me. I don’t even remember her name. How much worse for the memoirist whose job it is to write about events involving family and friends. It is hardly surprising that the memoir writer’s greatest fear is either harming others, or the fallout from people who think they have been harmed. Meredith Maran summarized the fear beautifully in the introduction to her edited collection titled Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature (2016). Maran writes,

“If you want to ruin your life and/or others’, there’s really no more surefire method than writing a true-life tale according to you.” (p.xi)

But we can’t leave it at that. Last week I enumerated the many benefits to writing memoir. Those benefits are still valid. So what is a writer of memoirs to do? To find out I returned to Maran’s book, reading and summarizing the words of wisdom from the twenty memoirists.

Nine Ways to Handle the Memoir Writer’s Greatest Fear

1. Write your first draft without concern.

There’s a big difference between writing and publishing. If you think about publishing, or even just sharing with family, before you have written, it’s likely that you won’t write or that you’ll write too carefully. Write with no expectations and no intentions other than to document your life. Worry about other people’s feelings later. From Anne Lamott,

“Just write it. You can worry about the legal issues and the next bad holiday dinner later. Tell the story that’s in you to tell.” (p.141)

2. Change names and identifying details.

You can tell the truth and still be protective by introducing the character with a phrase such as “and I am calling him Paul.” The person you are writing about will know, but no one else will.

3. Be harder on yourself than everyone else.

Rosie Schapp puts it bluntly–“The only person who should look like an asshole in your memoir is you.” Memoirists agree that if you are committed to coming off as the hero in your memoir, you should write a novel. A corollary to this sugestion is to never, ever write for revenge. Dani Shapiro says a good clue that you’re looking for revenge is that you think to yourself, “I can’t wait for so-and-so to read this.”

4. Tell people that you are writing about them.

This can range from simply saying that you are writing a story from your point of view to giving people pages to read before publication. The decision of which you do depends on how you will handle people’s responses. If you aren’t prepared to have people critique your writing word by word, don’t provide pages. It might be better in that case to read aloud the relevant paragraphs.

5. Be selective about what you share.

Ishmael Beah, who wrote about being a child solider, says,

“It isn’t possible to write about everything, and some things I needed to keep for my family and myself….My desire was to take moments of my life to make a point, and that is what I did.” (p.6)

Cheryl Strayed’s litmus test is to “write only what must be known as it relates to me.” (p.210)

6. Give up anticipating what will bother other people.

Dani Shapiro wished her mother would go on a world cruise and not come home until after the memoir was out of print. Instead, she waited as long as she could and then showed her mother the galleys of her book.

“Here’s what I learned: it was useless to have worried about what would upset her. She was angry about tiny details in the book that I hadn’t even considered, and yet the things I did think would upset her sailed right by. The moral of the story was, We can’t know what is going to impact another person, or why.” (pp. 175-176)

7. Wait for people to die.

That’s what Pat Conroy did with his parents, although he still lost his relationship with his sister as a result of his memoir.

8. Prioritize relationships.

Recognize boundaries. Don’t share other people’s secrets or tell their stories. If you are telling a common story, tell it from your point of view.

You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.

Anne Lamott

9. Prioritize your truth and let the chips fall where they may.

Pat Conroy writes,

“If I’m writing a portrait of my family and I don’t talk about the effect of that family on Carol, my beloved sister, if I don’t talk about how her childhood ruined her life, I’d be a liar and an unfit witness for the family I’ve been writing about….When it comes to memoir, I’ll always choose the writer over the person who suffers because of what’s written.” (p.44)

Update: Thank you to Profound Journey tribe member, Donna C., for the Anne Lamott quote she provided in her comment below. Using the magic of quick WordPress editing, that quote now appears in the updated margin of this post.

Which of the nine approaches would you consider taking? Just please don’t say that they would scare you off writing at all. As memoirist Kate Christensen tells us after writing her memoir, “I have a sense of peace I’ve never felt before, a feeling of comfort in my own skin.” (p.20)

20 comments

  1. Excellent post again Karen! As I was reading it I found myself nodding my head as things started making sense. If I were to write a memoir I would start off by writing my first draft without concern(#1).

    I would be most concerned with getting it all out there on paper and worry about cleaning it up later by rewording perhaps or (#2) changing names and identifying details.

    I would likely be harder on myself than anyone else anyway (#3). That is my default setting in life. I am always my own worst critic. To say I have negative self- talk is an understatement. I struggle to correct it, still, every time I notice myself doing it. So, I would (98% sure) be looking like the asshole in my own memoir.

    I think when it comes to (#4) Telling People You Are Writing About Them I would have to wait until that first draft is done and see how I felt about it then. That makes me nervous, letting the cat out of the bag like that would make me worry about them constantly checking with me how is it going? Can I read what you’ve got so far? If I am in it I have a right to see it, don’t I? That type of response is what stops me wanting to tell anyone that I am writing about them.

    Now, (#5) Being Selective With What You Share that has possibilities for me. If I share about what I was talking about in the comment section of the first post in this series I would not have any fears talking about the people involved. My abusive ex-husband deserves zero protection from me as far as I am concerned. Don’t misunderstand my motivation here, I am not seeking revenge (I can’t wait until he reads this) it is more like (here is my truth of what I lived through and what helped me get to where I am now).

    As for #6 – I am not sure I could give up anticipating what will bother other people. I could write the first draft without concern all the while telling myself it will never see a publisher, sure. Beyond that though if I were to go further I think I would still cringe. I would be worried about traumatizing someone with the words I wrote just like you did with that timed writing exercise. I am empathetic and care about others feelings more than my own.

    Waiting For People To Die (#7) is not an option for me. If I waited for that I would feel like a coward. Worse yet, I would feel like I was still being abused in that others control what I can say and when. It is my truth. I know, I am still all twisted about this topic and it is going to take a lot of time and a lot of thinking to choose a single stance on the subject.

    As for #8 – I think I can totally do that. I want to focus on MY story and am not interested in sharing anyone else’s story or secrets. If I write about a common story I would have no problem telling it from my viewpoint.

    Phew!! Finally, #9, I think I would have a lot of rewriting to do in order to soften any blow that might come from telling the truth. I would have to find words I could live with while still capturing the truth of what I needed to write about.

    Sorry for the long comment but I wanted to touch on each of the nine points and how I felt about them as they apply to my potential memoir. You have given me a lot to think about Karen. Thanks! 😀

    1. Whew! What a thoughtful comment, Susan. Please don’t apologize for sharing your thinking. I, for one, found that really impressive. Your concern for the feelings of innocent others and your commitment to tell your truth seems, to me, to be the perfect position from which to write a memoir.
      I do hope that you will start with #1 and will soon starting putting your memoir on paper. I’m trying to make sure that the posts I write in this series will be directly supportive of your goal. It’s an important goal, Susan. I know you can do this and I know that when you do, it will have been a profound journey for you and, ultimately, for your readers.

      1. Thank you, Karen, for actually embracing my long answers and comments. Usually, people look at me like I have two heads when I fill out forms (like the one I did recently for the eye surgeon) and I was writing in the margins when I ran out of lines. In fact, the eye surgeon’s assistant who went over the form with me asked if I was writing a book! LOL Sadly though, that is not the only person who has said that to me…so maybe I am meant to write a book after all. 😉

        I want to thank you for endeavoring to be supportive of my goal when writing each of the posts in this series, I really appreciate it. I can use all the guidance I can get. =D I don’t think I could find anyone more capable or qualified to help me attain that goal than you Karen. With your research skills and having written books before your assistance is invaluable. So thank you! =D

        I think I will begin writing my memoir. I will use my computer and word program and store it on a portable drive so it will always be safe. Using a computer appeals to me since it is easy to highlight and delete or correct words. Using this method of writing there is the handy ability to encrypt my document with a password to keep prying eyes away until I feel ready to share it. I can also type much faster than I can write longhand. Given my penchant for long answers on forms, I forsee a lot of rewrites in my future to shorten my memoir down to a more reasonable length than some of the doorstoppers I have read from Stephen King. Under The Dome and Insomnia immediately come to mind as those were some particularly lengthy tomes of his that I have in my collection. 😉

        Should I begin with an outline along with my theme or just start writing and see where that goes?

        1. And that will be the topic of next week’s post – some of the more practical details about how to begin the process of writing your memoir. Thanks for always giving me the appropriate next step, Susan!

          1. Thanks for always being there to give me the answer to my questions, Karen. 😀 Now I am looking forward to next week’s post!

  2. My favorite quote about memoir writing is from Anne Lamott, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.” You cover the core of this sentiment well in this post.
    Coincidentally, I just finished reading another blog about memoir writing (http://www.roamingabout.com/iwsg-writing-update-may-2017-expanding-your-horizons). I went back and shared the link to this post with that author. If she is not already following, I believe that she will find your post very useful!

    1. Love that Anne Lamott quote, Donna. It’s absolutely perfect for this post. If you don’t mind, I’m going to update the post right now to include the quote, with thanks to you for providing it.
      Okay, I’m back. Thanks so much for sharing my post with the author of the Roaming About blog. I took a quick glance at her site; will definitely now go back and subscribe, plus read everything she has written so far.
      I really appreciate you taking the time to find great blogs and then share them with us. I’m not very connected anymore – see last week’s memoir post! – but do love learning about and following interesting women.

      1. HI, Karen – I am so glad that you liked the Anne Lamott quote. Thank you for including it in your post — that was very cool. (I LOVE interactive blogging!)
        Thank you also for looking up Liesbet’s blog. She definitely is a fascinating woman with a captivating blog. I believe that she would love your blog as well.

        1. Thank YOU for the quote, Donna. I love interactive blogging too. We’ve got an all day rain here today. Along with working on next week’s posts, I’m looking forward to diving into Liesbet’s blog. Have a good day.

    2. Wow, I love that Anne Lamott quote! Thanks, Donna. 😀 I will have to create a sign with that on it to hang by my computer to remind me to be bold and tell my story as I push forward with writing my memoir.

  3. I love that Anne Lamott quote too! It’s a good reminder to all of us to treat people better… you never know who will write a memoir. 😀

    1. Too true, Janis. I just picked up a fascinating memoir from the library today. It’s called Sickened by Julie Gregory and is the story of a “Munschausen by Proxy Childhood” where the mother takes the daughter to hospitals and doctors constantly in order to solicit attention and nurturance for the mom from the medical community. That mom, while acknowledged by the author to be mentally ill, is not coming off very well at all in the memoir – no surprise.

  4. Hi Karen, I am finding your memoir articles interesting and helpful! You reference the book on Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones as being one of your favourites. It is one of the books I have here with me since you had recommended it to me some time ago. I have started rereading it and find that I want to highlight (but have resisted so far) many of her thoughts and phrases. She is amazing.
    Next step I decided to act on was to open up my blog to “write fearlessly” about another aspect of life that we have witnessed here. I find the process of building construction in Tashkent absolutely fascinating! Well, it seems that I cannot write to my heart’s content since the internet trolls here seem to have blocked my account!! I will have to content myself with writing somewhere else until I am back home. I can wait!

    1. I’m really glad that the memoir posts are useful to you, Fran. More to come!
      It’s great that you have Writing Down the Bones with you and that you’re enjoying it. I have all of her other books, including three memoirs, that I’m happy to loan you when you get home. No highlighting allowed, but otherwise you’re most welcome to borrow!
      Too funny that you can’t post your thoughts online in Tashkent. Just as well you’re coming home soon. We all want to hear what you think!

  5. Hi Karen,

    Donna shared your post with me. It hits the nail on the head! We, writers, worry all the time. If it isn’t about creating the perfect “end-product”, it is about what others will think and feel about our content and writing. I agree that putting everything down in the first draft is a great approach.

    I don’t think I’ll have a problem with being honest about myself and hard on myself when writing. We all have our mistakes and quirks and it is only fair to share them with the reader. I would like the reader to like and hate me and to be able to put him or herself in my shoes and see the world as I experienced it – through my eyes.

    I do not want to wait for people to die, or come back from a cruise, before publishing my (first) memoir. I want the darn thing written already. 🙂

    I am a very transparent person in general, so writing the truth is not an issue – remembering it correctly might be a bit harder. I’d like to believe I don’t care about the outcome or about upsetting people, but that would be a lie.

    Whenever I am done with the (almost) final draft, I plan to let the people I write about read the narrative and offer criticism and suggestions. I have asked the people I think will make the cut already whether they are fine with me writing about encounters with them. Whenever I am done, I’ll ask them whether they want to appear as themselves, or pick another name. 🙂

    Being selective about what I share is the hardest part of this first (and probably later) drafts. Sooo much to talk about!!

    This is a great article and I enjoyed reading it! I’ll certainly check out your other memoir articles.

    1. Hi Liesbet,
      Welcome! I’m very glad you’re here, and I’m delighted that the memoir article was interesting to you. This week’s memoir post – just published a few seconds ago – is about developing a theme. There will be three more memoir posts, one in each of the next three weeks about, respectively, tips for writing, the question of truth and what we remember (which you so wisely acknowledged in your comment), and thumbnail reviews or summaries of 20 or so of my favourite memoirs.
      I appreciate Donna telling you about this blog and telling me about your blog. I took a quick look when Donna mentioned it and really liked what I saw. Now, as soon as I’ve finished this comment, I’ll be heading back there again to read all of your posts and to subscribe so I see future posts. I’m looking forward to learning from and about you, Liesbet.
      Best,
      Karen

  6. Once again, Karen, you have hit the nail on the head with this post about the most difficult aspect of writing memoirs. Thank-you for your excellent summary of possible strategies.

    I also love the book, Writing Down the Bones, and also Anne Lamott’s book, Bird By Bird.

    I have had the experience of publishing a book of poetry that included personal poems from a very difficult time in my life. Although it was hard to publish it, somehow it was not as hard as writing about those events in a factual way. When you write a poem, you are not writing facts or naming individuals, even though the poems may express emotional truths.

    Jude

    1. As always you make great sense, Jude. I can well imagine that poetry, an ideal medium for expressing emotional truth, would be easier to work with than prose.

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