Like all of us, I’ve always been of the belief that actions speak louder than words. But over the past several months, I’ve been thinking about how loud words do speak, particularly if you are a memoirist.
I’ve had many years of writing and publishing (mostly here on my blog) to teach me that those who are written about will read your words closely and they will take them to heart, naturally. I have also had the luxury–I humbly admit–of those characters showing me extreme grace and forgiveness.
My memoir writing journey began in my very early twenties, and because I knew virtually nothing about memoir, other than having read a couple of them, I approached my writing this way: I wrote everything about everyone and used all their real names.
Now, I look at my pages and I see the truth, yes. But I also look at those pages and see real live people with real live emotions, and I have to honor that. At this juncture, having written the meat of the story, and revised it several times over, I have a choice: Do I change names or soften the story? Do I painstakingly sort through and assign similar sounding names to key characters? Cousins, boyfriends and bosses? Or do I keep their names and speak as if they are there in the room with me: with honesty, integrity, and compassion?
Writers in the genre have all heard the same line, “If they didn’t want to be written about poorly, they shouldn’t have behaved badly.”
It’s a fine starting point, a line to help you get your pen moving across the page. But I am curious to hear from other aspiring memoirists if it’s that same sentiment they think of when crossing over the threshold into querying and publishing.
Because, after all, most books do not become overnight bestsellers. What if we memoirists, in the end, sell our books only to our family members. If your book subject matter, childhood trauma, wouldn’t make for some awkward Thanksgiving dinner conversation, well I don’t know what would.
But here’s the thing, when it comes to me, the majority of those who have purchased the books I have self-published are not my family. I haven’t had a Thanksgiving with my mother, ever, and abandonment, whether comfortable or not, is central to my story. I cannot untangle myself from the truths and tell some other story. But maybe I can tell my story with a balance of both transparency and grace. Maybe. That’s what I hope for.
Back when I first started writing The Poetry of Place, long before it had a title, long before I’d changed my mother’s name to Moonbeam, and long before I started dragging my pages through critique group, it was all about the therapeutic benefits of memoir. I didn’t think of it in those terms back then, but looking back I’d really, really, really needed to exorcise my story. I was always a writer, from elementary school on up. So my story–once I finally realized it’s potential–became viable subject matter. And my intention morphed from the therapeutic benefits of writing to the creative challenge it presented: Writing a book worth reading.
So rather than “If they didn’t want to be written about poorly, they shouldn’t have behaved badly,” how about, “Hurt people hurt people.”
Most people agree with that statement, and I believe the message is being conveyed through my memoir. Therefor I cannot take responsibility, or blame, when expressing, in so many words, something that we all agree is true, that “hurt people hurt people.”
But that’s what it all comes down to, responsibly. Because memoirists aren’t just airing our dirty secrets, but in some cases the secrets of others, too. In turn we have the potential to create a significant portion of someone’s legacy. And that is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. Ever.
As I cross over the threshold into querying (that’s the long process of landing an agent or a book deal), and as I refine its final pages, imagining its bound version, I weigh my options. I am trying to strike a balance that honors both what I’ve endured, and protects the inherent innocence of those surrounding the story itself. Because none of us are perfect. Not even close. I think the most helpful advice I have heard is to be as hard on myself in the story as I am being on others. I assure you, given my nature, that my flaws will come across strongly in the final story. No matter what version you get.
Love (above all else),