One memoirist invites the reader into her a difficult marriage. Another risks describing her teenage daughter’s mental illness. One writer shares his son’s turbulent adoption journey. And another dares to detail a slice of her childhood experience that fed her eating disorder.
As memoirists purpose to tell the truth, we make choices about what to include in our telling and what to exclude. As we do, we find ourselves pulled between what can feel like two opposing poles: love and truth.
Considering writing a tell-all memoir that will shock readers and outrage those you love?
Most often, publishing a blog post, article or book that you suspect will damage your relationships with those you love—or struggle to love—isn’t worth it. If your published writing will expose a friend to ridicule, erode your child’s trust in you or harm your relationship with your in-laws, please reconsider. Be wary of the logic that insists some “greater good” trumps the intimate relationships that have been entrusted to you.
Also, power and vulnerability matter.
In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott advises, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” (That’s funny, right?) The same abandon, however, isn’t appropriate when writing about folks who are more vulnerable, like your young children. Protect the stories of those who are vulnerable.
Q: Is there ever a time to write when relationships will be damaged?
Malala Yousafzai bravely shared her story in I Am Malala. Those who resist the education of girls in Pakistan may be offended by Yousafzai’s book. Most likely, her telling won’t build relationship with those who sought to take her life. But hers is still a story that’s worth telling, despite the risk. Mahatma Gandhi exorts, “Truth never damages a cause that is just.”
Tip: If you’re considering writing memoir that exposes the stories of others, invite the counsel of wise colleagues.
SPEAK THE TRUTH.
What about telling “truth” that exposes others? Is there a way to tell the truth—that your father drank too much or that your sister struggled with an eating disorder—and still honor the people about whom you write?
In some cases, with their permission, it is.
There are a host of creative ways to signal what is most essential to your own story while:
- Honoring another as a beloved and valuable individual
- Excluding titillating details that aren’t necessary to the story
- Avoiding whining or begging for sympathy
- Revealing a person who, like us all, is complex (not oversimplified)
Q: Is there ever a time to reserve some of the “truth”?
The reader doesn’t need to hear about every ugly detail about your father’s abuse of your mother. In some cases, you serve the reader, and you serve the story, by telling less. It’s possible to tell a story that is “true” in the deepest sense by signaling to the reader only what is most essential.
Jeanette Walls does this so beautifully in The Glass Castle. Though Walls describes a childhood of alarming neglect, she does it without vilifying her parents. By describing her experiences without whining or demanding pity, by presenting her parents as both wonderful and flawed people, she makes room for the reader to experience what she experienced.
Tip: You serve the book and serve the reader by “showing” rather than “telling.” Don’t tell reader that your great grandfather was schizophrenic, show him.
Question: Morally, do you need another’s permission to tell their story? (Legalities are another level of consideration!)