FIVE WAYS TO WRITE A MEMOIR WITHOUT BEING DISOWNED!
In Podcast #11, we feature an article previously published in our printed magazine, Memoirabilia #5, by Memoirabilia member, Linda Robinson Brendle who shared her thoughts on five ways to write a memoir without being disowned. This is great advice for anyone planning to write a family-based memoir.
FIVE WAYS TO WRITE A MEMOIR WITHOUT BEING DISOWNED!
Anaiah Press published my memoir, A Long and Winding Road: A Caregiver’s Tale of Life, Love, and Chaos, on July 1, 2014. As the release day drew near, they posted the first chapter on their blog. I received some nice feedback and also some questions. Here are two of the more interesting ones:
How did you find the courage to write a memoir?…My family would have me excommunicated!
Did you share details with your family while you were writing the book?
I fired off a short version of an Anne Lamott quote – if they didn’t want me to write about them, they should have behaved better. Still, the questions lingered in my mind, so I developed a list of ways to write a memoir and still maintain family harmony.
Know your motives
Why are you writing your story? Do you have a specific goal, or do you just want to air your dirty laundry? There is a market for both types of memoir, but the first is less likely to lead to trouble.
When I first became a caregiver, my aunt suggested I keep a journal. Initially, it was a place to vent when things became tense, but then I gathered my courage and shared some of my writing. People sometimes laughed or cried with me, and some said, “Thanks, I thought I was the only one.” By the time I began working on my memoir, I had a purpose – to amuse, encourage, and maybe even inspire both caregivers and others going caught in difficult circumstances. Hopefully, I haven’t stepped on too many toes in the process.
Tell your own story
Studies in conflict resolution often focus on “I” messages. In any disagreement, it is important to speak about your own actions and feelings instead of assigning blame to others. I feel hurt when no one notices the clean house is much better than You always make a mess, and you never notice when I clean it up. In writing my memoir, I tried to tell my own story and leave others to tell theirs.
When I did cross over into a really personal story about someone else – like my son’s struggle with depression or my brother’s major clash with Dad – I asked for their approval. The exceptions were Mom and Dad. They were very private people and would probably have been embarrassed by having people read about them. However, by the time I realized people might actually be reading what I had written, they were too far into their dementia to understand, so I didn’t ask. After lots of prayer and consultation with people who loved all of us, I decided that the result of helping others justified telling their story along with mine. I hope they agree or at least will have forgiven me by the time I see them again.
Make your characters likeable
After I began working with Jessica Schmeidler, my awesome editor at Anaiah, the reality of being published set in. I worried about the legal and ethical side of writing about real people, even if I was only including them as a part of my own story. I wondered if I should contact each person I mentioned, use pseudonyms, or just take my chances. Jessica wasn’t concerned. “I like all your characters,” she said, “so I don’t see why anyone would be offended.” In writing a memoir, a writer is not creating characters. However, she does have the ability to make her characters sympathetic or not, depending on how she presents them.
Forgive before you write
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said a person should not offer a gift at the altar until conflicts with others have been resolved. When you sit down to write about a person who has hurt you, it is important to forgive that person before you put your hands on the keyboard. As the author, you have complete control and can tell your story so that your readers will understand without a doubt who the injured party was and who the villain was. Regardless of which path you choose, you also must be prepared to accept the consequences. If you choose to exact vengeance, you must decide if vindication is worth becoming the pariah of the family.
Speak the truth in love
Finally, tell the truth as lovingly as you can. At some point in my caregiving journey, Mom and Dad became The Kids. It was a loving term that I used with friends and family, but once again I was worried about the reaction of a wider audience. I consulted my husband, my pastor, my editor, and even my blog readers about whether the nickname might be offensive. Generally, those who didn’t know me personally said it was disrespectful, but those who knew how much I loved my parents saw no disrespect. Eventually, Jessica and I tweaked my story to make my intent clear, but she was not worried. “Linda, your love and care for your parents is so obvious that I don’t think anyone will misunderstand.”
If the author of a memoir skirts the truth in order to spare feelings, her story will not ring true. On the other hand, as she tells the truth, she must do so with love.