I’ve always wanted to write a memoir. One agent even recommended that I write one of my prescriptive nonfiction books as a memoir. I never did. I saw her a few months ago. It had been about two years since she wrote that response to my book proposal. She told me now she would probably advise me to stick with my original idea – write it as a self-help book.
That said, I’d still love to write a memoir one day. I have lots of ideas. My life as a stepmother. My short experience as the owner of a race horse. Growing up without a father.
Given that I know little about writing memoirs, I asked someone who knows a lot about this topic to write a blog post for Write Nonfiction on November. Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D. is the president and founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers. In addition, she is the prize-winning author and a writing coach. Read on to find out how to get over the first – and last – hurdle of writing a memoir: telling the truth.
Truth in Memoir Writing
Linda Joy Myers
President of the National Association of Memoir Writers
What is it? Who defines it? Dare you tell it as you see it?
Memoir writing, especially in a post-James Frey age, is fraught with all kinds of questions. We know that a memoir requires that we write the truth the best we can, yet we worry about being accused of making things up. Of enhancing too much.
And then there’s the family. “Why do you have to write that stuff? Leave us out of it.” Or they say things like, “How dare you air the family’s laundry like that. You should be ashamed.” Or: “You are wrong. It never happened that way!”
It’s enough to make you put down your pen and turn off your computer.
So, why do you want to write a memoir anyway? People who tell me they want to write a memoir have many kinds of reasons: to leave a legacy, to sort out memories and feelings, to tell a very personal story that might help others—such as overcoming great obstacles like an illness or recovering from abuse. To tell an uplifting story that will inspire others—climbing a mountain, starting a business and becoming a success. Memoirs are intriguing to us as readers, because they satisfy our voyeuristic urges—we get to peek behind the doors of other people’s houses and learn about who they are, how they coped with the struggles and challenges of life. Maybe we can learn from them. We feel less alone with life’s challenges when we know that others suffer or fail or yearn. When we read about love, forgiveness, and success.
Some people write for revenge—to show others that they were wrong. Who’s to say if this is a “correct” motivation, and it might make a good story—if you are not sued by those you’re accusing. Write a first draft to get out the feelings, and then stand back and assess if it is publishable. Maybe it is just good therapy.
Judith Barrington in her book Writing the Memoirtells us that the memoirist whispers in the ear of the reader, sharing intimate details. The tone is personal; the reader is being inducted into the special club of the family, friends, town, group whose inner life is detailed in the book.
But for most writers of memoir, the very thing that makes a memoir interesting sends shivers down their spines. Write intimate secrets? Reveal personal details? As much as the story might be interesting and even compelling, the inner critic taps them on the shoulder and as they write, or try to, and the critic’s warnings shut down the flow of words. “You can never go home for the holidays again if you write this. They will disown you. No one else agrees with you so you must be wrong. You will lose your friends, and you will be isolated.”
These voices are the inner critic, but what if your fears are justified? Each person has a family and friends who have their own versions of history and “reality.” Perhaps your family really is very private, and they will truly ostracize you if you write a memoir. I have met students for whom this is true. You might be aware that writing certain truths that are evident and not all that significant to you will be very hurtful to someone in your family. Does that mean you have to give up your writing?
James Frey wrote A Million Little Piecesand appeared on Oprah after he was accused of making up parts of his memoir. He admitted that he had done this, and there was confusion about how much the publisher was involved in selling as a memoir a book he’d presented as fiction to the publisher. Afterward, this public flogging/debate caused many memoirists to be fearful and almost too careful when writing their memoirs. I find that most memoirists take great pains to be accurate, almost to the point of not writing. Just write your truth, and be as accurate as you can. After all, a memoir is about memory, not just facts.
Here are some tips for dealing with these challenging issues:
1. Write the story you feel passionate to write, and keep it private until you are finished. Don’t tell anyone you are writing a memoir, except your writing group or perhaps your best friend. Don’t show it to anyone but your writing group. Protect your creativity.
2. In your first draft, lay out your story without much editing, trying not to let your inner critic shut down your story. Write down the inner critic’s comments to get them out of your head.
3. Make a list of the important truths of your life that you want to tell in your memoir.
4. Write about the truths that you don’t want to put in your memoir. Seeing them on the page can help you sort out the focus of your story.
5. Create an imaginary dialogue between yourself and family members who don’t want you to write about them.
6. List the 10 reasons you want to write your memoir.
By wrestling with your truths, you will find your way into the interior of your memoir, and yourself. Sift through the significant themes, stories, and turning point moments, and decide what your story is that you want to write, the story that is only yours to tell.
About Linda Joy Myers
Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D. is the president and founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers. She is the prize-winning author of Don’t Call Me Mother: Breaking the Chain of Mother Daughter Abandonment, and Becoming Whole: Writing Your Healing Story. Linda Joy is a therapist, speaker, and writing coach, and offers online teleseminars on memoir writing.