This past November, I was fully planning on writing a memoir for NaNoWriMo. I changed my mind at the last minute because the perfect idea for my next novel dawned on me on the last evening of October. Well, that’s the lie I told myself anyway.
The truth is that yes, I did get a great idea for my next novel and I did spend November writing that story. But that isn’t really why I didn’t write a memoir. I didn’t write a memoir because I simply wasn’t ready to write it. And my discomfort had nothing to do with being open about things that are personal; my reservations were firmly grounded in how my audience would see some of the other characters in my story.
In my search about how to write about sensitive topics that could depict loved ones in a negative light, I listened to a TED talk given by world renowned author Anne Lamott. She said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” And while I do believe that we own our individual stories, I also believe that those stories are closely intertwined with the stories of those who share our lives, and we cannot always detangle our story from theirs.
So taking into consideration that entanglement, do we really have the right to tell only our side of the story? The fact of the matter is, we all make mistakes. We all say or do things at some point in our lives that we end up regretting. So if you write about the injustice that I did to you regardless of whether or not I have made amends, is that fair? Is that fair to my story? Is it fair to your story? Keep in mind that your reader will not love your loved ones as much as you, no matter how true-to-life you draw them. So while you may have accepted their apology and forgiven them, your readers won’t feel the same way. It is very possible that, for them, the poignant moment in the memoir will be the moment of betrayal not the moment of repentance. So forever in your readers’ minds, that father will be abusive, that child a druggie, or that wife a cheater. Is that how you want the world to see those people who mean(t) so much to you?
In Behind Picket Fences, one of my characters poses the question, “Don’t those we love… or loved… or those who have shared our lives, don’t they deserve to be forgiven for their mistakes?” And really, that is the main question I think a writer has to consider before writing about the bad behavior of people who are or were precious to her.
I tend to think that the answer to that question is, generally, yes. And I can’t very well claim to have forgiven someone if I’m still hashing out how they wronged me, no matter how true the story is. And if it’s not about a wrong done to me personally but a societally accepted wrong, what do I hope to gain by outing them? Perhaps that’s the main question.
A memoir can be about a great deal of things. It can be about sharing life experiences that teach valuable lessons. Or just about healing. Often, to do these things, we need to re-live those negative moments in our lives, re-live the process which brought about the hurt. And to do that, we need to be honest to the story.
Being honest, though, doesn’t mean the story needs to be published. The healing memoir can take the form of a personal journal, reserved for the eyes of only the author. Because I can’t very well claim to publish a memoir to heal if in doing so I will hurt others, especially if those others have been important to me.
I don’t know. I’m still torn. I know that one day I’ll write a memoir, but I also know that it won’t be the one I thought I would write. It will be about hurt and strength and compassion and forgiveness, and I hope to write in such a way that you, my readers, will love my loved ones as much as I do.
But I know I can’t count on that.
What do you think? Do you have the right to tell your story no matter how it affects others? Is it always your story to tell? Is there ever a time when it isn’t? Would love to hear your thoughts…