Writing Your Memoir: Sharing the Truth

Some people hesitate to write a memoir because they fear hurting or angering people who would appear in the memoir.  Another barrier to writing can be a reluctance to revisit or reveal painful memories.  These are valid concerns—and ones to which writers respond in different ways.  In this article, I’ll mention a few of the issues involved and tell you a little about my own decisions concerning them.

Life’s meaningful experiences, both the blessed and the terrible, usually involve others.  A memoir writer’s relationships with others are generally at the heart of the most inspiring and fascinating elements in the author’s story.  And so if you write a memoir, there is no way around making decisions on what to tell about your family, friends, and acquaintances and how to handle potentially hurtful details concerning them. 

My parents, Doris Burgess Hayek and Mason Hayek, left partially completed memoirs and extensive additional written and oral accounts of their lives.  In editing their memoirs (Paint Lick and Growing to 80) for publication, I wrestled with questions about naming names.  Almost all of the people who found their way into my parents’ memoirs are deceased, so libel was not a concern, but possibly hurting folks was.  Because the memoirs are historical records of their time and place, I kept names unless I felt a portrayal could clearly be hurtful to the person’s children, grandchildren, or other descendants.  For example, names I omitted included those of a well-to-do shopkeeper who stole money from my grandfather, a teacher who slapped my aunt so hard she left a hand print on her face, and an annoying young minister who lived next door to my mother and her family.

Mother and Daddy's Wedding
Mason Hayek and Doris Burgess Hayek

In my own memoir, A Woman in Time, and in my memoir writing that finds its way onto my blog, I usually use real names only in the case of my family.  (And to disguise someone, changing a name may not be enough.  Additional changes may be necessary, adjustments that protect an identity while not violating the essential truth of the story being told.)  I am blessed to have had a deeply loving family and profoundly admirable parents.  For writers whose harshest life challenges emerge from their relationships with their family members, much more difficult choices than I have faced have to be made about what to tell and how to express hard realities.

Before you begin writing, however, you don’t need to make all of your decisions on what to include about the people in your life.  I recommend first drafting your story as fully and freely as you are comfortable doing.  Then, before publishing it (online, as an e-book or audiobook, or in print), you can carefully edit your work to address all legal, ethical, and personal concerns.  Avoiding libel is just one legal issue of importance to memoirists.  Writers need to know the law, to ensure their own protection as well as the rights of others.  One of many available resources is The Legal Guide for Writers, Artists and Other Creative People, by Kenneth P. Norwick.  Whatever your decisions about sparing feelings and revealing truths, these decisions need to be filtered through the lens of the law.

The Three of Us, 1951

While my challenges have not come from my loved ones, I’ve managed to create or otherwise jump into my share of unhappy times.  The bad spells are part of the journey, the source of countless lessons, learned and unlearned.  For some periods of my life, though, I simply don’t want to write about the darker moments.  I haven’t forgotten them, and I honor what they’ve taught me about empathy and understanding and about self-reliance and courage.  But I don’t necessarily want to put those experiences under the renewed, painstaking scrutiny that writing about them would require.

I do not feel compelled to obey each so-called “rule” from books and gurus claiming to hold the ultimate truths of memoir writing.  The false edicts include commanding that memoirs include every gory, distressing, titillating (and so on) detail for every scene because these are what sell books, what readers want to read, and what writers must confront.  Similarly, the false judgments opine that to leave out some of the distressing facts in a story is to display cowardice, dishonesty, and substandard writing.

My college years at the University of Delaware contained some of the dark moments to which I’ve alluded—bleak patches in my memory in which I don’t wish to linger.  My undergraduate days are among the eras I’d like to explore further in writing, but not by including every detail (those bleak patches), even the ones that might be especially interesting to readers.  I’m ashamed of some of my college moments, embarrassed by others.  So how am I going to be honest about those years, writing about them in a way that brings insight to me and to any who might read what I have to say?

WH outside French House
At college on one of the many happy days

An answer came to me one morning when I found myself meditating on my college recollections.  I relaxed into a peaceful trance and let the thoughts float past.  As I meditated, I saw in my mind a glass-fronted curio cabinet.  Instead of shelves, the cabinet had small compartments, perhaps four or five across and six down, to hold the special objects chosen for display.  My subconscious was offering a useful symbol.  The cabinet reminded me that I can write about the events and emotions I wish to exhibit, that I can create meaningful images and describe selected scenes without feeling the need to catalog each gruesome moment of my undergraduate career.  As the cabinet symbol was telling me, I can share meanings without dragging out every single knickknack in my memory collection.

In other words, it’s not necessary to begin, “On the day before the start of freshman orientation, I moved into Sussex Hall and met my roommate.”  Beginning that way, I’d quickly be off into territory I don’t want to revisit.  It was hard enough to endure once, without reliving it.  I don’t want to explain, for instance, why I saw To Sir, with Love four times and Barefoot in the Park three, sitting by myself in the movie theater on Main Street, or why I spent hours hiding in bathrooms and out-of-the-way nooks in the library and classroom buildings.  Maybe such accounts would be more instructive—as excellent examples of what not to do—than the scenes I choose to share.  But the point is that I don’t have to write about anything I don’t want to write about, and neither do you.

I, like you, am in charge of what I write and how I write it.  Following the “rules” may possibly help you and me to please a publisher, but will it please us?  I think, instead, we should follow the often-quoted advice of British author and literary critic Cyril Connolly: “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.”*

* Cyril Connolly, The New Statesman, February 25, 1933.

Next: Finding the meaning in the facts

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