Memoir and Your Relationships

One memoirist invites the reader into her a difficult marriage. Another risks describing her teenage daughter’s mental illness. One writer shares his son’s difficult adoption journey. And another dares to detail a slice of her childhood experience that fed her eating disorder.

Would you?

In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott advises, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories.” She continues, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” (That’s funny, right?) She’s saying you are the owner of what happened to you, so you have the right to tell your story, even when it intersects with someone else’s story.

Do you agree?

As memoirists purpose to tell the truth, we make choices about what to include in our telling and what to exclude. As we do, we find ourselves pulled between what can feel like two opposing poles: love and truth. I want to argue that love and truth aren’t enemies. With care you can communicate both.

Practice Love


Considering writing a tell-all memoir that will shock readers and outrage those you love?

If your published writing will expose a friend to ridicule, erode your child’s trust in you, or harm your relationship with your in-laws, please reconsider. Be wary of the logic that insists some “greater good” trumps the intimate relationships that have been entrusted to you.
Let the guiding principle that informs your writing and your living be love.

Also, power and vulnerability matter.

Maybe you agree with Anne Lamott and are happy enough to let the chips fall where they may. However the same abandon, isn’t appropriate when writing about folks who are more vulnerable, like your young children. Though their early abandonment story or behavioral issues might be interesting, and even overlap your own story, exercise caution. Be vigilante to protect the stories of those who are most vulnerable. You practice loving care when you protect the stories of others.

Speak Truth


So what about telling “truth” that exposes others? (Especially the ones Anne Lamott suggests “should have behaved better.”) Is there a way to tell the truth—that your father drank too much or that your sister struggled with an eating disorder—and still honor the people about whom you write?

In some cases, with their permission, it is.

There are a host of creative ways to delicately signal what is most essential to your own story.
  • Exclude titillating details that aren’t necessary
  • Avoid whining or begging for sympathy
  • Reveal a person who, like us all, is complex (not oversimplified)
With some creativity, you can often find ways to tell the truth without throwing your loved one under the proverbial bus.

Figuring it Out


Q: Is there ever a time to reserve some of the “truth”?

Yes.

The reader doesn’t need to hear about every ugly detail about your father’s abuse of your mother. In some cases, you serve the reader, and you serve the story, by telling less. It’s possible to tell a story that is “true” in the deepest sense by signaling to the reader only what is most essential.
Jeanette Walls does this so beautifully in The Glass Castle.  Though Walls describes a childhood of alarming neglect, she does it without vilifying her parents. By describing her experiences without whining or demanding pity, by presenting her parents as both wonderful and flawed people, she makes room for the reader to experience what she experienced.

Q: Is there ever a time to write when you suspect relationships will be damaged?

Yes.

Malala Yousafzai bravely shared her story in I Am Malala. Those who resist the education of girls in Pakistan may be offended by Yousafzai’s book. Most likely, her telling won’t build relationship with those who sought to take her life. But hers is still a story that’s worth telling, despite the risk. Mahatma Gandhi exorts, “Truth never damages a cause that is just.”

Q: What’s the best way to communicate sensitive revelations?
As in all writing, you serve the book and serve the reader by “showing” rather than “telling.” Don’t tell reader that your brother shot up heroin in the bathroom, or your daughter’s coach behaved inappropriately, or your great grandfather was schizophrenic. Show the reader. Let him experience what you did.

Best Practices


This business of speaking the truth in love, emphasis on love, is something about which I’m passionate. I likely won’t write a memoir about my husband coming out as gay and the impact that had on our family. The balance between truth and love—the love I have for my children and their father—feels too tricky to navigate well. And so that particular story will likely not be written.
This said, I’ve learned that I can’t always see clearly. In conjunction with my book The Grown Woman’s Guide to Online Dating I shared some videos online of my standup comedy about dating. Before I’d ever shared my last name, one internet detective I’d met on a dating site found one of the videos and decided that he couldn’t trust me. It made him feel too vulnerable, fearful he’d be my next “material.” Eyes open, I didn’t blame him! I now wish I’d sought a perspective larger than my own.

Finally, loop in your loved ones. At a writer’s conference I heard from a writer who didn’t give his family a sneak peek at the book as he was writing. And when it was released, they were surprised by what they read—and not in a good way. His relationships were harmed in ways that might have been avoided.

Here are some best practices that can help keep you on track:
  • Consider the possibility that this story isn’t meant for an audience of strangers.
  • Invite input and wisdom from those you trust.
  • Do not surprise your loved ones with your published work. Engage them first.
When you purpose to speak the truth in love, you honor both the reader and your relationships.