Writing about your life is a great way to figure out what’s next for you. You can get a firmer grip on your past—the obstacles you’ve faced, the successes you’ve seen, moments of agony, days of joy—all of which can help you plot a future that embraces your passions and gifts.
You may think creating such a narrative is a straightforward process. You tell your story the way it happened, right? Here’s where it gets tricky: you are not just writing about you, because everything that has happened to you involved other people too. And if you think leaving all the “bad bits” out is an option, think again. Every good piece of writing—truth or fiction—must contain conflict; that’s what makes a story worth reading. And there’s the dilemma: In being true to yourself, you may rub others in many wrong ways.
I wrote a memoir about traveling solo, focusing exclusively on external events. When my editor told me to add a tell-all chapter about my life, I panicked. I didn’t want to share the information—some of it painful and awkward—and I didn’t want to sound whiney or blaming. “Trust me,” she said, “it will really resonate with readers.”
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My father was mortified that I shared my less than happy childhood with the world. I finally said, ‘I’m sorry you can’t handle the truth.’ The wounds are still healing.
Readers did love hearing my story—all but a handful including my father and an ex, who posted a snarky review on Amazon. My father was mortified that I shared my less than happy childhood with the world. After months of arguing about it I finally said, “I’m sorry you can’t handle the truth.” The wounds are still healing.
Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D., founder of Memoir Writers of America is familiar with my plight. “In all my classes and workshops, we discuss the issues of family – the writers worry about how family will react to their stories. Will it make things worse? Will they be attacked or judged for what they say on the page?” Myers says that trouble can begin even before your work is printed. “I have discovered that people may judge you for writing even if they have not read the book, that they may project their own imagined fears and perhaps guilt—about what we may never know—onto the person who takes the risk to speak out, to write, to publish.”
In the wake of an unflinching memoir about her troubled past (All That Glitters: A Climber’s Journey Through Addiction and Depression), ice climber Margo Talbot experienced push-back from her family. “My mother disagreed with everything I wrote about my childhood,” she tells Life Reimagined. “That wasn’t a surprise. The surprise is that she’s writing her own version to counter mine, and I can’t wait to read it. I told her that I wrote a memoir according to my interpretation of events, and that I respect the fact she has a perspective that differs from my own.”
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In Myers’ memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother, she wrote about people who were no longer alive, her parents and her grandmother. “I knew they wouldn’t like it, but I knew that I had to tell the tale of the generations of mothers who had abandoned their daughters,” she says. She cautions that “no matter how hard you try not to offend and how much you have tried to protect family members, it still may not work. You may find yourself on the receiving end of an attack, judged and perhaps feared.”
So what’s the solution? Write an abridged version of your life? Can the project altogether? If you’re intent on writing your memoir, Myers offers these suggestions.
1. Make a list of the people whom you do not want to offend.
2. Make another list of those whose secrets you know.
3. Write in your journal about the secrets and shame-based issues in your family to clear them out of your head.
4. Don’t tell family members what you are writing about until you are finished. It keeps the outer critic from becoming your inner critic.
5. Know that you can change the names of the guilty or the innocent, but if they will recognize themselves when the book is published, you need to tell them what you are doing.
6. If you have concerns about liability, you should consult a literary attorney.
Although I didn’t write my memoir as therapy, digging up memories long-buried led me to discover how my past shaped the attitudes and opinions I have today. Knowing where these feelings come from and why I have them gives me the power, finally, to embrace them or let them go. So for me, telling the truth was worth the fallout. “Perhaps the pen is the mightiest tool of all,” says Myers. “Perhaps writing is a warrior’s path. But I still say to writers out there: write your truth, write for yourself. Protect yourself from the judgments of others as long as you can. But if you are published, be prepared for anything.”