Thinking About Truth and Your Family When Writing Memoir

Concerns about hurting family and friends are some of the most worrisome for memoirists. My advice? Quit obsessing about it and get on with the writing. Plenty of would-be memoirists have stopped themselves before even getting started, due to such concerns, and many who have made it past the starting line, never finish their memoir because they freak out part of the way through and quit.

Worrying about the impact of your memoir on family and friends before you even have a manuscript written is the most sophisticated procrastination technique writers of personal stories have ever come up with. It’s the magic ticket to inaction.

Now before you think I’m a heartless jerk for saying so, 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 hopeful writers do just that. Or, you may go the route of sugarcoating everything, ensuring (you think) everyone’s feelings and hiding your own. Why even write a memoir then?

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 Great Aunt Minnie as a world-class philanthropist (when she is actually a miserly elder)—your loved ones aren’t going to like your characterizations. They will find something to get their backs up about. This is the way people behave when they find themselves revealed in stories. Period.

You 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 generous view of people and events—and let the future fall as it does.

As an editor, it’s the “Oh.” syndrome when I see writers of memoir place more importance on the feelings of family and friends than on the transformative process of digging in and getting to the meaning of their experiences, and finding compassionate ways to tell their truths—which is the real work of memoir.

Any kind of writing is hard work, and good writing is extremely hard work, which 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.

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 and friends, you are most likely:
1) procrastinating about the work of writing;
2) failing to understand the form of memoir and the craft involved;
3) ceding respect for yourself to the illusory power of controlling other people.

Don’t do it. Just dive in and write!

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