Lisa Dale Norton is an author and memoir editor. She works on manuscripts with writing clients and teaches at conferences nationwide.

Thinking About Truth and Your Family When Writing Memoir

May 1, 2019
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Questions about how to avoid hurting family while writing memoir are among the most common I get when speaking with memoirists.

My response to the raised eyebrows and set jaws is to say: “Quit worrying about it and get on with the writing,” words some memoirists don’t like to hear.

However, many hopeful memoirists do stop themselves before even beginning their stories because of this bogeyman concern, and many who do get past the starting line, never finish their memoir. They have the magic ticket to inaction: valuing others above themselves.

Now before you think I’m a heartless jerk, stop and think about it: if you can spend all your creative energy worrying about your words, you don’t have to actually write! Focusing on the possibility of how your theoretical assessments might affect others, keeps you from: 1) doing the demanding personal work of excavating those assessments (the truth of your life); and 2) doing the demanding work of learning how to write a memoir.

Instead, you can spend the rest of your days in the land of I’m-Thinking-About-Writing-A-Memoir, and many would-be memoirists do just that. Or, you may go the route of sugarcoating everything, ensuring (you think) everyone’s feelings and hiding your own. Really, why bother writing a memoir at all?

“The fact is, people feel the way they choose to feel.”

The fact is, people feel the way they choose to feel. You can’t do much about that. Even when writers do their darnedest to couch everything pleasantly—to paint Aunt Minnie as a world-class philanthropist when she is actually a miserly elder—Aunt Minnie isn’t going to like your characterization. She will find something to get her back up about. This is the way people behave when they find themselves revealed in stories. Period.

You, dear memoirist, simply have to tell your story, remembering with each step of the process the art of balance—that technique of moderating strong emotions with a broad view of people and events—and let the future fall where it does.

It’s deflating to see writers of memoir place more importance on the feelings of family members than on the transformative process of getting to the meaning of their experiences and finding compassionate ways to tell their truths, which is the real work of memoir.

“Good writing is extremely hard work that involves both art and craft.”

Writing is hard work. Good writing is extremely hard work that involves both art and craft. The writer’s focus should be on learning both, and for the memoirist also on the mining of meaning behind human experience and emotion, not on worrying about others’ unpredictable behavior.

Harsh? No, just pragmatic words from a long time writer and editor of narrative nonfiction.

Remember, if you are in the process of writing a memoir, or you haven’t even begun, and you are obsessing over the possible reactions of your family, you are most likely: 1) procrastinating about the work of writing; 2) failing to understand the form of memoir and the craft involved, and/or 3) ceding respect for yourself to the illusory power of controlling people.

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This post was written by Lisa Dale Norton

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