The Importance of Showing Mercy in Memoir

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),

Mama Bird

9 thoughts on “The Importance of Showing Mercy in Memoir

  1. Wonderful post! 🙂 Sharing some thoughts on the matter, if I may.

    >>”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.’ [But] how about, ‘Hurt people hurt people[?]'”

    Both the ones writing memoirs and the people featured in them are humans too – flaws and all. Wisdom allows an opportunity to look back at the hurtful action or situation with a clear eye. Maybe they were having a bad day, maybe they were undergoing something terrible. We can’t say what exactly led to them doing that hurtful thing.

    I believe it would be a disservice if we would simply dismiss others on the basis of one past wrong, unless the perpetrator is unrepentant and recalcitrant. Condemning others for life over a past misdeed does not allow an opportunity to change for the better.

    The way I see it based on what I learned about memoirs in my college freshman English class, memoirs do not serve as a call to lynch someone over a past wrong. If anything, they serve as a form of catharsis for the writer – and the readers who will chance upon them. People who chance upon a memoir and find it relatable will experience that catharsis likewise, knowing that their experience is not alone and there are others who have been in the same situation and emerged.

    Cheers!

    1. I appreciate your comment so much, Monch! Clearly you have given this subject some thought. I especially love these two comments:

      “I believe it would be a disservice if we would simply dismiss others on the basis of one past wrong, unless the perpetrator is unrepentant and recalcitrant.” (I even learned a new vocabulary word! This is an important distinction, thank you for pointing it out. It will help me to consider this as I develop other characters and continue on in the memoir-writing process.)

      And this one,

      “Memoirs do not serve as a call to lynch someone over a past wrong. If anything, they serve as a form of catharsis for the writer.” (How true this is for the writer, yes!)

      Thank you for giving it some thought and sharing how the piece impacted you in relation to what you know about the genre. That is awesome!

      1. No problem! Incidentally, cancel culture came to mind while I was drafting that comment. While cancel culture has proved effective in bringing down previously untouchable predators, I find that it has been weaponized against the smallest wrongs.

  2. We’ve all been hurt by someone. Writing about the dead ones is quite cathartic, and adding humour can soften the tone. I try to restrain myself from having a go at those who are still living, because at the end of the day it can make me look as bad as them. I also figure they have enough lead in their saddle bags without me needing to pile any more on!

    1. Hi Rose,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond with your input! The complexities of writing memoir are significant. I love how you have clearly given lots of thought to what you hope to get from the process…and what you want to avoid (i.e. upsetting anyone). I also love what you said about using humor to soften the tone. 😛

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