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 Bones, was 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.
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)
#2 – What is the Memoir Writer’s Greatest Fear?