Writing Memoir or Family History? Be Afraid. Be Careful.

That's me, Lynette Benton

That’s me, Lynette Benton

When I converted my home office into a writer’s study, one of the first things I did was post on the bulletin board above my desk a card from the National Association of Memoir Writers. It reads:

Be Brave: Write Your Story

That’s what writing memoir and family history takes. Bravery. Cojones. Downright Daring. As Catherine Gildiner writes in “How to Write a Childhood Memoir,” “. . . [W]riting a memoir takes nerves of steel. . .” *

Few of us have steely nerves when it comes to writing honestly about our lives or our families. The stakes are too high. I don’t just mean the possiblity that what you write will fracture family relationships. What you discover as you write might also shatter some of your own fiercely held illusions about your family—and yourself. What you write also forces you to relive less than sanguine experiences, and dredge up old embarrassments, personal regrets, frustrations, and grief.

Of course, you might be one of the lucky few with a history in which every day was sunny and no one ever got sick, cranky, fired, or drunk. You might have no bygones to let be bygones. If you’re like most people, though, your own past and that of your family are peppered with no shortage of secrets, myths (or, let’s face it, lies), or unpleasantness. Or, you might make a fully considered decision to report only the good times, and that’s your right, of course. Some of my memoir and life-writing students state categorically that they do not wish to rake up the sad past.

TREES WATER

I would never tell them, as many proponents of the memoir writing process believe, that just writing your story is healing. I know that it actually can leave you in tatters.

Exposing Secrets
A conviction that our story needs to be told can supply the sheer courage that’s required to exhume old memories and write them into art. For me it was a matter of first, knowing I was in possession of two interesting, suspenseful, instructive stories—one centering on money in my family, the other on my work in organizations. Second, I felt compelled to put an end to what felt like collusion. As long as I kept my stories inside me, it seemed as if I was abetting secrecy and suppression of the truth. It was suffocating me.

Our families might have been daredevils, drinkers, cultists, swindlers, and involved us as their unwilling offspring in their activities and deceptions. If their story is unflattering, if they’d rather it not be told, at least not from our point of view, should we suppress it even if it chokes us?

With each of my memoir and family history drafts, I find myself revealing more and more of the truth. That’s partly because with each re-writing, as in a palimpsest of versions placed atop one another, I develop deeper understanding. New insights bubble up. New connections appear. Ah-ha moments seize me during the day and tease me in my sleep, making me wonder how I could have missed them before.

And with each draft, it gets harder and harder for me to justify hiding the truth.

Stick With What You Can Tolerate
I don’t allow myself or encourage my students who are writing about their lives or their families to reveal more truth than they can stand. Instead, I say, tell only the truth, but not every truth. The fallout could be unbearable, in terms not only of how those mentioned in your manuscript might react, but also in terms of your own self-recriminations. What if you find out later that what you wrote is just plain wrong? What if you have regrets after your book is released to the public, or even just to family members or friends?

Charges of Libel?
Your friends and relatives objecting to what you write is one thing. Suing you is another. We’re all supposed to be protected under freedom of speech laws, but to be on the safe side, educate yourself about libel (“a false statement made in writing”) and privacy laws, which vary across states. You might want to give careful thought to whether or not to include photos of people in your memoir or family history, unless you’ve gotten written permission from them.

To stand the test of truth, I’ve kept documentation: letters, emails, legal documents. I have no illusions that those who witnessed certain events would testify to the veracity of my account. Why would they want to get involved in my battle, if it came to a court case?

Help Is On the Way
Upcoming posts on this topic will address the ethics of memoir and family history writing (issues such as fairness to both the living and the dead) and I’ll share info on resources and ways to overcome your apprehensions.

Your Thoughts?
What do you think about the possible perils of writing about your life and your family? Please leave a comment, which can help all of us writers of these types of manuscripts.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also find the following helpful:

Will My Family Get Angry About My Memoir? Be sure to read the (quite cautionary) comments.

Memoir, Writing the Truth, and Family: Interview with Author Joy Castro

How to Avoid Committing a Libel in Writing a Family Memoir See additional links at the end of the post.

* In Women Writing On Family

If you need help with writing your own memoir or family history, check me out on the Testimonials tab above and use the Contact tab to tell me about your project.

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13 thoughts on “Writing Memoir or Family History? Be Afraid. Be Careful.

  1. Thank you Lynette for this post about the down side of writing a memoir. It’s funny that some of your clients stated “categorically that they did not wish to rake up the past.” Yet, that’s exactly what memoir writing is. At the same time, I understand their apprehension because as you point out, writing memoir “actually can leave you in tatters” because not only do we have to dredge up old memories, in most cases, we have to re-live them too. The stakes are high–very high. Even though I have not published my memoir that reflects on emotional abuse yet (I am still writing), I do not expect my family relations to be the same once it’s published. However, like you, I could no longer be a part of suppressing the truth. Writing a memoir really does require “nerves of steel” before and after publication. Looking forward to reading the next post in this series.

  2. So true, Lynette. I’ve been working on my memoir/biography for more than ten years (biography because it’s so much about the impact of our sprawling rooming house, Dad’s travel, a psychotic grandmother, and the racial upheavals and riots on my parents’ love and livelihood).
    As I wrote and wrote, scouring my parents’ letters and diaries for the clues to their later unhappiness after such a promising start, I kept asking myself, “What is this about?” I didn’t know. Only through writing it, over and over, have I been narrowing the focus, excising the extraneous material and getting to the nuggets of truth. Both my parents are dead, so I needn’t worry about their opinion. I’m free to write the truth as I’ve unearthed it (and as I see it). Hard to keep going — discouraged many times, but light at the end of the tunnel is growing brighter!

  3. I know you’ve worked like the dickens on your memoir. (Me, too.) Finding the theme, the core, the main nugget is way more difficult that most people know. I’ve been shaping mine for 5 years. Okay, I admit it: 6 years. I hope this all means, Linda, that when we finally show ours to the world, we will have nailed it!

    Thanks for your comment.

  4. We memoir writers can relate to and sympathize with each other about the problems this kind of writing presents. You are courageous to plan on putting your story out there, despite knowing your family might not like what they see.

  5. Great post. Such an important topic – at least in my eyes. I absolutely love reading memoirs; it gives such insights into peoples’ “secret” lives. Lord knows most of us have lots of secrets underneath our daily lives. I also love memoirs because they help me learn perspective – how my life might compare with the writer’s. By the way, Lynette and Linda, I am anxiously awaiting to read both of your memoirs as soon as they are available. (Linda – I don’t know you personally, but your short description has me quite intrigued). The possibility of hurting others is always a concern of mine (probably too much so – I can be such a wimp), so I will continue expressing my feelings in the form of abstract poetry – that no one understands. Thanks for your great blog postings. These topics are fascinating, and your writing is so inviting.

  6. Hi Terry: Like you, I am anxiously waiting to get my hands on Linda’s memoir. Thanks for complimenting my writing and posts. It means the world to me that you feel the blog topics are interesting; this one was kind of suggested by you, so I hope I’m doing it justice.

  7. Linda, I can certainly relate to writing it over and over in search of the truth. With each edit, I learn a little bit more as I write my memoir. I look forward to reading your memoir. It sounds very interesting.

  8. Lynn, you makes some great points. I’ve been working on my memoir for years and am still in the rough draft stages. I’m just getting all the bare bones junk out on the page and will trust that what needs to be carefully scripted, edited, and deleted will become apparent later. I want to leave something that will uplift the reader, and at the same time, my goal is just to tell my story. I think potential lawsuit content will be crafted as creative non-fiction and labelled as such. It can be grueling. Good luck everyone!

  9. Hi Sue: Keep on plugging away at that memoir. It might take a long, long time, but investing in it eventually will pay off. And writing something to inspire and support readers is a worthwhile endeavor. I hope you’ll be able to finish it and share it widely!

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