How did you find the courage to write a memoir?…My family would have me excommunicated!
Did you share details with your family while you were writing the book?
I fired off a short version of an Anne Lamott quote–if they didn’t want me to write about them, they should have behaved better–but the questions lingered. I knew I couldn’t really give a complete answer in 140 characters, so here are five ways to write a memoir without being disowned.
Know your motives
Why are you writing your story? Do you have a purpose in mind, or do you just want to vent and air your dirty laundry? There is a market for both types of memoir, but the first is less likely to get you disowned.
When I first became a caregiver, my aunt suggested I keep a journal. At first, it was a place to vent when things got tense, but then I got brave and shared a few things on Facebook. People sometimes laughed or cried with me, and some said, “Thanks, I thought I was the only one.” By the time I began writing my memoir, I had a purpose–to encourage, amuse, and maybe even inspire other caregivers. Hopefully, I haven’t stepped on too many toes in the process.
Tell your own story
If you’ve ever studied conflict resolution, you’re probably familiar with “I” messages. In any disagreement, it is important to speak about your own actions and feelings instead of assigning blame to someone else. I felt abandoned when I didn’t know where you went after work instead of You always go off without telling me where you’re going. In writing my memoir, I tried to tell my own story and leave others to tell theirs.
When I did cross over into a really personal story about someone else–like my son Christian’s struggle with depression or one of my brother Jim’s major clashes with Dad–I asked for their approval of what I wrote. The exceptions were Mom and Dad. They were very private people and would probably have been embarrassed by having people read about them. They were too far into their dementia to understand, though, so I didn’t ask. After lots of prayer and consultation with people who loved all of us, I decided that helping others through their story somehow gave meaning to their struggles. I hope they agree or at least will have forgiven me by the time I see them again.
Make your characters likeable
After Anaiah picked up my book, I began working with Jessica Schmeidler, my talented and sensitive editor. As the reality of being published set in, I began to worry about the legal and ethical side of writing about real people. I asked her if I should contact each person I mentioned, use pseudonyms, or just take my chances. She said I should do whatever made me feel comfortable but that she didn’t see any problems. “I like all your characters,” she said, “so I don’t see why anyone would be offended.” In writing a memoir, a writer is not creating characters. However, she does have the ability to make her characters sympathetic or not, depending on how she presents them.
Forgive before you write
There is a verse in the Bible that addresses this—well, sort of.
23 Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. Matthew 5:23-25
My advice would be, before you sit down to write about a person who has hurt you in some way, be sure you have forgiven that person before you put your hands on the keyboard. As the author, you have complete control and can tell your story so that your readers will understand without a doubt who was the injured party and who was the villain, but you also have to be sure you’re prepared to accept the consequences. You have to decide if vindication is worth becoming the pariah of the family.
Speak the truth in love
Finally, whatever you choose to write, tell the truth as lovingly as you can. At some point in my caregiving journey, Mom and Dad became The Kids. It was a loving term that I used with friends and family who knew my situation. As Jessica and I worked on polishing my writing, I raised the question of whether “The Kids” might be considered disrespectful and offensive to some of my readers. I even wrote a blog post about it that included a poll. The responses to the poll were few, but the majority said “Yes,” it was disrespectful. When I discussed the issue with both my husband and my pastor, they were conflicted. Both said their first reaction was “Yes,” but knowing me and how I much I loved my parents, they knew there was no disrespect involved. Jessica and I tweaked my story to make my intent clear, but she was not worried. “Linda, your love and care for your parents is so obvious that I don’t think anyone will misunderstand.”
If the author of a memoir skirts the truth in order to spare feelings, her story will not ring true. On the other hand, as she tells the truth, she must do so with love.