Writing a memoir is not an act of war, but it can seem that way to our family. When our “truths” are other people’s “lies” that they need to believe, when the larger than life stories are skewed or downright wrong—some people look askance at any story that does not agree with their own version. Family members are like slices of a pie, seeing the center through a different lens. It’s a war when families fight over what “really” happened, and this can go on and on, for generations.
Memoirists wrestle with those inner voices, the inner critic, or are they the family voices who are whispering, or yelling:
• You’re writing a memoir! For heaven’s sake, why must you air the dirty family laundry?
• Why are you doing this to us?
• I thought you loved me!
• Your grandmother is going to roll over in her grave if you write that.
• Don’t you dare write any of that while we’re alive!
• You’re a liar!
• Who gave you the right to tell my story?
• We’re gonna sue you if you publish that!
• Secrets are kept for a reason. Don’t you rock the boat.
We can’t stand behind the fictional wall and say, “I made it all up. I know it seems like Aunt Rose and grandma, but really, it’s all fiction.” No, we can’t do that. We have to stand there raw and real, and claim we’re writing the truth to the best of our ability, your honor, as the court wearing its black robes begins to judge us at 9 AM while we are sitting down to write. And it stays there all day as the clocks tick and the dogs demand to be walked and the sun passes across the sky. Our ideas dissolve and we are consumed in guilt and doubt.
There are the “inner critic” the voices that just come and perch on our shoulder, but most of us have real people in our lives who get fidgety when they find out we’re writing about “their” family, even though they are also “our” family. And we might be writing about them. People get very antsy and nosy and worried when they have a writer in the family, especially a memoir writer, so for goodness sake if you hope to write your story, keep the fact that you’re writing a memoir to yourself! Unless your family lives next door, they won’t find out you wrote your first draft or your fifth one until you tell them. Keep your mouth shut. And write and write and write.
Write all those stories about your brother, your parents, your best friend, your first boyfriend, the kid who clocked you who later became a stockbroker. Write about the guy who took advantage of your innocence and use his real name. Write your anger and all the times you wanted to hit someone back but didn’t dare because they were grown-ups and it would only make things worse.
Find your voice, write it all out. Don’t hold back. Break out of your silence. Tell it like it was and if it was ugly, tell it true. It will hurt for a while, but then it will feel better. It has already been hurting you for too long, but now the word is in the writing and healing research that first you get all that stuff out and then you shape it and get it to make sense. That is if you want to write your truth, all the way, without fussing. Most of us think we need to be too polite, as if we are at a fancy tea, and write sweetly and not shock anyone, but that’s not what this is about. You have to shock to break out of the tiny closet where only what is approved of can be written. You have to write the ugly stuff, the blood, sweat and tears, and the beauty will then come more naturally, not wrapped in lace, but in authenticity. It will be real beauty, not something we have to fake to be “nice.”
In other words, Write Your Truth. Protect yourself from gawkers and naysayers. And find your tribe. Memoir writers do something brave every day—they claim their truth.