Are You Brave Enough to Write your Story? 8

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?”

[bctt tweet=”What’s your motivation for writing?” username=”writingthrulife”]

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.


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8 thoughts on “Are You Brave Enough to Write your Story?

  • Sara Etgen-Baker

    Such a noteworthy and powerful topic. I wrote many memoir vignettes with honesty and compassion, for I felt in so doing I’d at the very least heal myself. I fictionalized many of the names and places just to be sure. Still, the negative backslash was immense, like a tornado reeking havoc on the Kansas prairie. So many folks were offended and have since alienated me from family events or disconnected from me altogether.
    At first I was shocked, but then came to understand that I rocked their illusionary worlds and exposed false truths. In the end, many family members wanted to continue to live in unhealthy denial. That’s their choice to make to continue to do so. And I’m grateful for having the guts and where with all to write the words that healed myself and some others. And I had to face the fact that the relationship I had with some family members was built on sand; it wasn’t real. My stories and words revealed that to me. For a while I was angry with them. “How could they?!” I asked myself. For a while I even felt a loss and had to grieve something that never was. During the process I came to forgive them and appreciate the lessons I’d learned. I call that maturation and courage. No regrets.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Sara, thank you for sharing your experience and the impact of your family’s backlash on your life. We never know how people are going to react, do we? It’s sad that some in your family reacted by cutting you off and alienating you. Yet, your words have also served to provide healing for yourself and others. Writing is a choice, and how people react to stories is their choice. We can’t control others, only ourselves. I’m glad you were brave enough to do what you needed to do to bring your stories into the world. Your stories will remain long after any negative reactions. This is not to disparage anyone who make the opposite choice. I admire you for yours.

  • Sharon Lippincott

    Especially where peers are a source of agony, some of us need lots of years to realize our secrets are probably shared by half the world, each thinking we’re unique. Over a period of at least a dozen years this has come clear to me, and my perspective on several situations has shifted as well. Writing about secrets may be a long, drawn-out process.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      I agree, Sharon, it can take a long time to get enough distance from events, and from the pain, to write. I’m thinking about Linda Joy Myers’ 40-year process. And yet, the gifts of sharing our lives with others are worth the price. As you say, we think we’re unique and then find out we’re not alone. That, in itself, is reason to read and write memoir (though there are many other reasons, as well).

  • Nancy Dye Leer

    Good morning, Amber. Your article raises important questions, and provides sound advice. As I write my memoir, and delve more deeply into the events and their effects, I find that the villains have changed, become more complex, and no longer villains but imperfect humans. This allows me to feel comfortable sharing with my siblings and asking about their experiences of the same parents. Thank you for the opportunity to express this.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Nancy, I love that sentence: “…the villains have changed, become more complex, and no longer villains but imperfect humans.” That is the transformative power of memoir. Thank you for sharing your experience and process in writing yours.

  • Harriet

    Hello Amber. Quite an interesting topic. I came from the type of dysfunctional home life that were it present day, my and my siblings would be in foster care and my mother most likely, incarcerated. I, too, am wanting to write a memoir to heal and possibly put some of the pieces back together before I pass on (I’m 65, oldest of five), but am absolutely certain of hurting my mother. So I’m waiting. Thanks for the topic.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Harriet, I completely understand. Writing a memoir can take a long time. You might consider beginning to write it now—get those stories on paper and then publish later, when it feels like the right time. Just a suggestion.