SOME PEOPLE only write their stories when they’ve got nothing to lose. But others write their truth even if they’re risking their reputation, their livelihood or their close relationships in order to do so.
Certainly we can see this in books and movies. Take The Help as an example. This is the story about an aspiring journalist in the 1960s who wants to uncover the effects of racism and how poorly white upper class people are treating their black “help.” But the maids don’t want to talk to journalists. If they get caught badmouthing their bosses, they can lose their jobs. Worse yet, this journalist is white, so many of the maids don’t trust her. And those who do talk to the journalist face backlash from the other maids.
The first ones to talk to the journalist do so because they believe it is the right thing to do. They realize her article could be a step in helping raise awareness and ease the racism. But they risk everything—their jobs, their friendships, even their freedom, as all their white employers have to do is accuse a maid of stealing, and she’ll get locked up. In this situation, the maids who open up to the journalist are doing the brave thing.
If you grew up in a family with secrets, and those secrets greatly affected you, then they are a part of your life story. The big question, that faces writers in this situation is, “Am I willing to write the truth, even if I risk backlash from family members?”What's your motivation for writing? Click To Tweet
For many would-be memoirists, the answer is no. They decide that, if they will write their story, they will need to wait until the family members involved have passed on. And that’s okay. There is no shame in making this decision. These writers have realistically assessed for themselves what they are willing to risk, and they have decided that writing their truth is not worth the possibility of being shunned or hated by living family members.
Another way to deal with the fear of backlash is to fictionalize your life story, changing the names and key characteristics of people and publishing as a novel. Again, this is a choice.
Many memoirists have compelling stories that they know will resonate with others who have experienced similar families or life situations. Like the journalist in The Help, they want to bring those family secrets into the light of day in order to raise awareness, help change destructive family cycles, or heal the past. For these writers, the right choice is also the brave choice.
Which brings up the topic of motivation. If your motivation for writing is to inform and heal, and you are writing about what happened with compassion—even while writing about painful events—your story has a positive purpose, and may be worth the risk of backlash. However, if your motivation is to get back at or take revenge on someone for the way they treated you in the past, then reconsider. No one wants to read an angry memoir. We want to read stories of growth and transformation and hope, where the protagonist (in this case you) overcomes obstacles and becomes a better person.
In The Art of Memoir, author Mary Karr suggests letting family members read the passages in which they appear and giving them censorship powers: if they don’t like what you’ve written about them, consider taking those sentences or passages out. This is a good idea if you have solid relationships with those family members.
But that’s not an option available to everyone.
When I wrote my memoir, Not the Mother I Remember, I made the choice to write and publish without revealing what I had written to my family members. While writing, I asked myself if what I was revealing about anyone in my family was important and necessary in order to tell my story. If not, I left it out. I did worry that I might face some backlash or, at the very least, someone saying, “that’s not how I remember it,” or ,”it didn’t happen that way.” In the end, my memoir was embraced by my family and even brought some of us closer together. Perhaps I was lucky. Or perhaps the moral of my happy ending is that you never know how people are going to react.
Whether or not your story will reveal deep family or personal secrets, you will reveal personal aspects of yourself and your life experience that make you vulnerable to others’ opinions of you. Writing a memoir is, on many levels, an act of bravery.
So I ask you. Do you have a story to tell? And are you brave enough to write that story?
Share your thoughts on this topic.