Memoir writing carries risks of family reactions, anger, and exposure. It also can be freeing and healing. Writers need to have a way of managing these polarities and be
free to express their truths.
During my years of teaching memoir writing, I’ve supported many different people of all ages to write their personal stories. Writing and finding your voice is a path to
greater self-knowledge and can help put the past in perspective. I’ve seen this kind of transformation many times for myself and others. Writing the truth and facing some of
the issues of the past frees people to move on to new levels of Being and inner peace.Naturally, in my workshops we discuss family issues, and how writers worry about the
ways their friends and family will react to their stories. Will they be attacked or judged for what they say on the page? Will they get to come home for the holidays if they write a
memoir, particularly if secrets are revealed. By the way, they will only know about your secrets if you show them your work. I advise you keep your work private until you are
finished with the first draft.
In my own case, I discovered from interactions with an older generation in my family that it didn’t matter if I hadn’t named names or told the t secret stories. What mattered was that
I wrote anything at all about the family. Sometimes writing anything about other people can be seen as threatening, and even more bizarre—you may be judged for writing a book
even if they haven’t bothered to read it. As a therapist, I believe that people may project their own imagined fears and guilt onto the person who has taken the risk to speak out, to
write, and especially to publish.
As I wrote my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother I felt relatively safe because the people who appear most in the book—my mother, grandmother and father—were dead. I felt
compelled to tell the cautionary tale of mothers who had abandoned their daughters, and tried to honor my Iowa extended family. I wanted to tell the stories about how loved
and accepted I felt there, and how my great-grandmother and great aunts and uncles had helped me to feel less abandoned.
As is necessary in a memoir, I left out quite a few things, particularly the details about the uncles with roaming hands and greedy eyes. I believe that I was omitting the stories that
would distract from the main theme about the mothers. But I wonder now if the legacy of sexual abuse was part of their story too. My grandmother told me about grandfathers
and uncles who were “to be watched out for.” I heard about hands up little girls’ dresses.
I knew that my grandmother ran away from her grandparent’s home when she was 16, but never found out exactly why, but I do know that she expressed a deep hatred of men,
and I have to wonder about the origins of her deep distrust—again the therapist speaking here.
No matter how hard we try not to offend others or how much we may want to protect family members, memoir writing is risky. You may find yourself, as I did, attacked,
judged, and perhaps feared. But as I did I hope you keep writing anyway, that you blast through the barriers of knowing and writing your truths. They are yours, the stories are
yours to tell. After you write and write, you can revise, and then decide in what form you want to publish your stories, or if you want to publish at all. Some people need to write
their life story for themselves, for the satisfaction of writing it.
I offer this to writers: write your truth, write for yourself. Protect yourself from the judgments of others as long as you can. Publication is not the point for many months or
even years. Writing is your passion, your job. Finding your truths and the words where you can voice them is your path. .
Suggestions for writing, truth, and risk:
1. Make a list of the people you don’t want to offend.
2. Make another list of those the secrets you know.
3. Write about the secrets and shame-based issues in your family in your journal
to clear them out of your head. Then figure out where else you want to take the
4. Look over your memoir and make a list of the stories that implied, even if you
didn’t write it directly, secrets and truths about what you know about the family.
5. Don’t tell family members that you are writing personal stories or a memoir until
you are finished. This helps to keep the “outer critics” from becoming your inner
6. When you’re finished, you can change the names of the guilty or the innocent.
Before you publish, it’s a good idea to let them know they are in the book.
7. Consult a literary attorney if you have any legal or ethical concerns about your