Ask memoir writers what their greatest challenge is and many will say, “how and when do I share my writing with the relatives and friends who are part of my story?” Up to now, when I finished a personal essay, I sent it off to my family to make sure there were no gross inaccuracies and because I thought they would enjoy seeing what I wrote. They did, and I appreciated their corrections and suggestions.
But this week I am going home to see most of my siblings and my mother. I will be carrying a story that won first place in the Kalamazoo Gazette Literary Award competition and was published in a special literary edition on March 29, 2009. It’s called “My Mother’s Pulpit,” and you can read it here. I chose not to tell my mother about this story or to send a copy to her. I want to deliver it to her in print and read it to her in person. I think, hope, pray she will love it and see it for what it is–a tribute to her indomitable spirit.
But since the story reveals that she embarrassed me, like most mothers do to most daughters at some point, I am a little nervous about her reaction.
Some memoir writers have written about this dilemma. Annie Dillard shares her work with family members in advance of publication. Jeanette Walls, in The Glass Castle, amazingly, has the full support of her mother in telling the story of how she became Park Avenue daughter who has a baglady mother.
Other writers, such as Augusten Burroughs in Running with Scissors, however, have been sued by family members or friends or have become estranged from them because their versions of the truth clash, or they simply don’t want the family dirty laundry put on the line.
Another way, oddly enough, that friends and relatives can take offense results from not mentioning them. Memoir writers probably ought to place gargoyles on their houses to protect themselves from all potential hazards of the calling.
I take comfort in the case of the residents of Willa Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska, which at first did not like the way she portrayed them in her stories and novels. Now Red Cloud proudly displays itself as the place that fostered Cather’s imagination, and the economy of the whole town is heavily dependent on the devoted pilgrims who come to visit the places she described in book after book.
I am hoping that Mother, who gave all her children a love of stories, will understand both my motive and my structure and characterization in the recently published story. I have counted on her unconditional love all my life, and I know I can count on it one more time. She plays the same role in my memories of childhood that she played in all the war-time Manheim Township High School dramas–leading lady.
Do any of you have advice for me? Personal experiences to offer?