So now I had agents interested – in a memoir that did not yet exist. This is jumping ahead in the chronology a little, but I want to talk today about the core dilemmas of writing a memoir at all.
Writing memoir seems at first to be an easy project, doesn’t it? After all, you’ve already got material (the ups and downs of your life), a supporting cast (your kith and kin, in all of their lovable imperfection), villains (everyone who has ever been mean to you, and boy, are they going to be sorry!), and of course, a protagonist you know very, very well. All you have to do is write down what happened in your own inimitable style, throw in some philosophic-sounding paragraphs about the meaning of life, the nature of familial bonds, etc., and you’re home free, right?
Better still, the common wisdom continues, since a memoir is non-fiction, you need not write the whole thing before you start to pitch the book to agents: all you need is a good proposal, with a chapter or two of the finished work. An agent falls in love with it instantly, and suddenly, your woes are the object of sympathy, apology, and critical praise; overnight, Nicole Kidman is playing you in the movie.
If this is actually your experience, I can only say Somebody Up There is very, very fond of you. For most of us hapless memoir-writers, the process is not so easy – and writing the blasted thing, unfortunately, is the easiest part.
Even if you are one of the lucky few blessed enough to find writing your own life a piece of cake, there is an invariable stumbling block: other people are going to read it, and their opinions on your life may not be yours. Other living rememberers may be problematic.
Even if all of your kith and kin are 100% behind your project in theory, they may not be so happy when you start calling them on inconsistencies in the time-honored anecdotes. Who the hell are you, some may well ask, to say that I’m contradicting myself? Or that Great-Aunt Maude’s perennial tale of her parents’ trekking across the continent in a covered wagon was historically about 50 years too late to be absolutely accurate?
Obviously, in this situation, you will be much, much happier if you have documented everything everyone has ever told you, as well as a reference for every outside piece of history that you cite. Most prospective memoirists are already aware that they might have to prove the truth of their contentions to, say, the editor who buys the book or, in the worst-case scenario, in a court of law, but very few memoirists I know realized that the toughest audience of all to convince would be the very characters who people the book: their kith and kin.
I received a terrific question today about how one goes about gathering the kind of documentary evidence you will want to have in hand before you go up against any kind of critical audience for your memoir. It’s such a good question that I want to answer it at length in a later posting. For now, suffice it to say: it would behoove you to document up to your eyeballs, but even then, please do be aware in advance that your kith and kin may well not thank you for telling the truth as you know it.
Allow me to reiterate: memoirists tend to get a lot more flak for telling the truth than telling lies. Actually, in my experience, this is true for any kind of writer: there will always be some disgruntled ex-coworker who will insist after you hit the big time that he and he alone was the basis for your best character. It is counter-intuitive with memoir, though, where the whole point is that the writer is telling the truth with insight and verve.
At least, that’s how writers tend to think of it. Non-writers, alas, tend to cast it another way: if your version differs from theirs, you’re a liar; if it is the same as theirs, you have invaded their privacy. Rend your hair and discourse about the necessity of the creative mind to express itself as much as you like; show the family videotapes of every writing teacher you have ever had saying “Write what you know!” but in all likelihood, your Cousin Alice or some other holdout will remain obdurate that there are only two alternatives: you are a liar, or you are a betrayer.
This, if you have wondered, is why one so often reads interviews with famous memoirists where they deplore not having written their entire opus as fiction.
Now that I have gotten you good and scared, let me beg you: under no circumstances should you self-edit while you are writing in order to minimize the possibility of kith and kin misunderstanding. Good memoir tells the truth: compromise that vision, and what do you have? I fail to see how an honest memoir COULD be from anyone’s perspective but the writer’s.
And in any case, this strategy seldom works. Since everyone has secrets, the cropping-up of a memoirist in the family can lead to a near-paranoid fear of outsiders looking into even the parts of family life that are relatively innocuous. You may feel, and with good reason, that your presentation of a traditional family Thanksgiving is a miracle of understatement and a paean to the Norman Rockwell-like bonds of love around the dinner table – and then be astonished to learn that your impeccable piece’s reputation amongst your kith and kin who have not read it is of a grisly, murderously satirical free-for-all that would have made the Marquis de Sade blush. And this may puzzle you, because you will naturally feel that your depiction of family life accurately reflects your point of view – so what is Cousin Alice saying, that you have no right to your opinion?
It doesn’t take much imagination to picture how quickly the resulting intra-family conflict can escalate.
The truth is, some people just have an instinctively negative reaction to the very notion of being written about – and thus analyzed – that borders on the superstitious. Cousin Alice is, in all likelihood, picturing a Jerry Springer Show-like mêlée, where upsetting secrets are revealed in front of millions, and total strangers in the audience suddenly jump up and accuse poor Alice of being a lousy human being.
Now, in actual fact, Cousin Alice is probably not the villain of your story at all — other than that incident where she tied your braids into a Gordian knot when you both were eight, and you cried and cried when the hairdresser sliced most of your hair off – but there’s probably nothing you can say that will convince her of that. You can show her that the braid story is, at most, a page and a half out of a 400-page manuscript that otherwise depicts her as Mother Theresa, and she will still feel tremendously hurt that you have written such a nasty book about her. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about that.
I have, alas, personal experience with this kind of hurt feelings. My memoir (working title: IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN? LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, subject to change at the publisher’s whim) focuses primarily upon my quirky relationship between the ages of 8 and 15 with the science fiction writer who was my mother’s first husband, as well as his relationship with the rest of my family. Now, I have never discussed our relationship with any of his biographers, my story is new to print, but Philip’s life is pretty well documented, with half a dozen major biographies gracing the shelves.
So I came into the memoir-writing process with two major misapprehensions: that everyone who was close to Philip was by now quite used to being written about, and that my private interactions with a man now dead for 23 years were in fact a part of my life and his, and no one else’s. By coming forward with the story, I thought, I am really the only living person being exposed to scrutiny.
Other people, as it turns out, do not agree with me on either point, and in this I am not alone. I can’t tell you how many of the memoirists I know have been subjected to insults, intimidation, and yes, even lawsuits to try to prevent them from telling the truth as they see it. By their kith and kin, who often have not even read the book in question. The mere mention of the possibility of family secrets being exposed makes some minds leap to litigation, just as it makes other minds leap to Jerry Springer. Dealing with such minds is an occupational hazard of telling the truth.
Prudence prevents me from going into the details of the ensuing debates, but P.S., I’m going ahead with the book anyway. However, it has placed me in the uncomfortable position of having to write a member of my extended family (who, incidentally, is neither my cousin nor named Alice, so don’t start conjecturing) out of my own life story, at her request, and my interpretations of events that concerned only me and people long dead have come under the scrutiny of people who had nothing to do with them. And, truth compels me to add, as hard as dealing with these necessities has been, it was a piece of cake compared to what other memoirists have endured.
Leaving aside for the moment the issues of differing points of view and strong views on privacy you may abruptly learn that your nearest and dearest cherish, most of the successful memoir-writers I have known have found it downright disorienting to have their personal memories be the subject of debate at all. It is good to be aware in advance that as soon as your book is purchased, someone you did not know three months ago will feel free to comment familiarly upon the last thirty-five years of your relationship with your mother, sometimes in ways that would have caused bloody noses on our elementary school playgrounds. You will just have to smile, nod, and take notes.
Let no one say that a writer’s life isn’t interesting.
The moral is: write what you know to be true, and remember that you are actually under no obligation to show your work to your kith and kin before it’s published. Cousin Alice may not concur, of course, but let that be yet another thing about which you agree to disagree. As an honest memoirist, you may find a whole new world of issues to disagree over opening up to you and your loved ones.
Courage! And keep up the good work.
– Anne Mini