How To Write Your Memoir and Still Go Home for the Holidays: A Guest Blog

The day has come for both the guest blog by Linda Joy Myers and the first day of our giveaway contest. Below is the guest post that addresses the question of how to deal with our fears of offending family members from Dr. Myers, a therapist, writer, and teacher. I invite you to offer your own comment at the end, which will automatically enter you in the giveaway. On Friday, March 26, 2010, at noon I will draw a name from all the commenters on this post and on the interview with Linda Joy posted here tomorrow. You could win your own copy of The Power of Memoir. So comment early and often–like a voter in Chicago.

How to Write Your Memoir and Still Go Home for the Holidays

Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D.

 Every time I offer a memoir writing workshop, people raise their hands to ask questions and share their worries about writing a memoir. “What about revealing the family secrets?” The young man shook his head. “Maybe I shouldn’t write my story at all.”

A middle-aged woman added, “When I told my family I was writing a memoir, everyone got silent. Now, I feel ostracized because they’re so worried about what I might say. Some of them know it won’t be pretty. Maybe I should just stop. I don’t want everyone to get mad at me.”

One woman shared that her family ordered her not to write her stories until everyone was dead! This caused quite a stir and even more questions.

The fear that leads to silencing ourselves is a powerful force, one that needs to be monitored if you want to write your stories. At every memoir workshop I hear worries about what family and friends will say when they’re published. They feel loyal not only to the living, but to the dead.

I ask, “Have you started writing yet?”

“No.” Or they might say that they’ve made a few notes, or they have box loads of journals they’re afraid to look at.

My response, “If you haven’t written a draft of your memoir yet, there’s nothing to worry about. If you haven’t told anyone you’re writing a memoir, don’t tell them now. Just keep writing and keep your stories private for a while.”

Sighs of relief and smiles relieve the tension around this fraught topic when I remind them that no one will know about their memoir if they don’t confess they’re writing one. Many people, particularly women I’ve noticed, feel a strong obligation to silence themselves in order to protect those who appear in the memoir. They spend years worrying about it while the story they want or need to write simmers and haunts them. They are silenced by the guilt-inducing voices of family, whether real or imagined.

Revealing other people’s lives can even be a problem if you decide to fictionalize, as the main “characters,” if they’re based on real people thinly disguised, are going to be easily recognizable to friends and family.

It is important for memoirists to take into account the fact that we’re offering up other people’s lives in our work. But we are not offering these secret stories to the public for a long, long time. First, we have to write, we have to claim our story. Many writers get ahead of themselves, and imagine all the terrible troubles of being published when they don’t know yet what the story is. Until you write it down and commit it to paper, you don’t have a story. The story that we imagine does not necessarily match up with what ends up on the page.

I advise that you write your first draft in complete privacy, only showing it to your therapist or your writing group. Ask for confidentiality in your writing group. If you live in a small town, take online classes. If you write about family and friends in your local writing group, everyone already knows all the characters, and can’t offer objective feedback. They might give skewed feedback, based on their own biases and loyalties. But having a supportive writing group is very helpful in setting deadlines and making sure you come prepared with a new story. The group witnesses you and your stories, offering compassionate feedback, which is a valuable part of the process.

Another factor is the ever present inner critic. It can channel the old family rules: “Don’t air the dirty laundry. How dare you talk about the abuse of your dead uncle—he can’t defend himself. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

These critiques can be more subtle though, showing this way: “This is boring, no one cares  about the details of your life.” Another famous one: “Who do you think you are (to dare write anything.)”

Notice the discouraging inner voices in your mind and write down what they are saying. Are they familiar phrases you grew up hearing? Label them as inner critic static, get the phrases out of your head and in your journal. Close the journal and go back to writing your memoir stories.

Give yourself permission to write in secret, in the “safe sacred space” of creativity. In this space, no one knows what you are writing. Keep this space for yourself to protect yourself and your early creative seeds.

Research about writing shows that writing creates a new perspective and changes the brain. It helps you to review, reflect, and sort out old, toxic memories. Sometimes you can literally feel the chains of the past that once bound you lifting away.

Take care of yourself and your seedling stories, protecting them from the taunts and darts of others, and revealing them only when you’re confident of your story and your truths. If you do this, then showing up for family holidays won’t be a problem. While you’re there, scribble notes as people share the family stories. You’ll get even more information if you gather around the photo album and ask questions about what others remember. Draw upon the family to help you piece together holes in your narrative and answer questions about your great-grandmother. Be curious, but mum about why you are asking so many questions!

Be patient too. I’m always assuring my students that writing a memoir takes courage, perseverance, and the willingness to explore what is not known. Writing a memoir is a long journey into the unknown as you travel the road of memory. Start your story today!

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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18 Responses to How To Write Your Memoir and Still Go Home for the Holidays: A Guest Blog

  1. Jodi says:

    What happens if you've already told family members you're writing? How do you deflect the questions before you're ready to talk(or even know what your memoir will focus on)?

  2. robingilbertluftig says:

    Great guidance. I, too, have family stories that are bouncing around in my mind trying to get out.

  3. marycoxpace says:

    A compassionate, insightful, and often unspoken reflection on writing our memoirs. You said: The fear that leads to silencing ourselves is a powerful force, one that needs to be monitored if you want to write your stories. At every memoir workshop I hear worries about what family and friends will say when they’re published. They feel loyal not only to the living, but to the dead.Painfully honest. Very wise advice.Thank you,Mary

  4. Tom DeWolf says:

    Great post! When I was writing my book “Inheriting the Trade” (Beacon Press) I asked a couple of authors I knew for advice on writing about other people. The most important things to do, they said, is to be honest and to be fair. I did so to the best of my ability and I was writing a book that lets the whole world know that my family is related to the largest slave-trading dynasty in U.S. History!I was also writing about 9 cousins with whom I traveled from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba and back. We didn't always agree and we didn't always get along. After reading my book, one of them told me something that I also believe is helpful to memoir writers: “this is my version of the movie of our lives.” Everyone else in my family has the right to tell their version.There are incidents I chose to leave out of my book that, even though true and fair, still had the potential to cause harm. It's delicate work but following the advice in this guest post, and allowing ourselves to be led by love and discretion, we can tell our stories.Writing my memoir, and sharing it with the world, has been one of the most healing and rewarding things I've ever done.

  5. If the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, then you can try to stuff it back in when family bugs you about your memoir. You can blame your writing coach, your writing group, or me by saying, “I've been advised to write in private for a while to see where it's all going–I really don't know what the story is yet, as I've just started. When I get further along or have something that I need to show you or ask for comments, I'll let you know!” Smile while saying this, and be a broken record.If they wait three months and do it again, or a year, let them know that you're following the writing coach's rules still, and that you'll get back to them. Maybe they will catch on. If someone who is very close is in the memoir, and they seem anxious, you could reassure them that you'll vet the manuscript with them, or let them read the parts they're in before it's published, but you don't want to promise things you're not sure of. If you haven't finished it yet, you won't know what's in your memoir, and you need to reserve all temptations for your inner critic to attack by letting in any critical voices. When in doubt, be vague and don't promise any outcomes! Good luck!–Linda Joy

  6. shirleyhs says:

    It's great to see these comments tonight and to recognize that Linda Joy has already answered Jodi's question. Welcome to all. Tom, thanks for sharing your experience. You have a memoir story that I have been following ever since the screening of Traces of the Trade at the Newseum in Washington, DC. I recommend both your book and the film to any reader.

  7. shirleyhs says:

    One more thing. Be sure to check out tomorrow's post. Linda Joy goes into more detail with questions I raised about the subject of family and friends–other people–you include, or don't include, in you memoir.

  8. Walker says:

    You note that women in particular tend to silence themselves… so true in so many venues and it gets in our way. It has certainly gotten in my way as I have the double taboo of writing about my post-divorce dating and SEX!!! Oh my…. So, I work at keeping the negatives at bay.. I was doing a quick writing dump of negative thoughts every day (gotten away from daily journalling temporarily) and it helped immensely. Seeing all the worries on paper made them look so absurd I had to laugh!

  9. I think you make some good points. In a memoir, we indeed are writing our version of the story, and we need to listen to the voice of ethics inside us that helps us decide how to present our story to the world. I think humility and empathy for others helps too, which it sounds like you have, Tom, as you share a story that might be controversial.I love the fact that you are talking about love and discretion, and that you feel writing your memoir was healing and rewarding! In all my work with memoir writers at The National Association of Memoir Writers and my other groups, I carry the banner of love and healing potential through writing memoir, but it's great to see others carrying it too!Best of luck in your future work, and thanks for your story here.–Linda Joy

  10. It's great that you are brave enough to write about dating and sex! Some people shy away from it, but it's a part of life, and can be written about with delicacy and humor, and in so many different styles. Yes, I've found that journaling about the dark stuff and getting it on the page is very helpful. We create a new perspective and see things through different eyes when we write, and research has shown that it changes the braing. Then we are free to move and grow and reach for more!–Linda Joy

  11. Dora Dueck says:

    I had commented yesterday but for some reason it doesn't seem to have landed — anyways, I too enjoyed this post — thanks Linda, and Shirley for posting it. I think that what you say about not editing or self-censoring the first draft applies to almost any kind of writing. I think the hardest work is getting that first draft out because it's the most emotional, the most emptying.

  12. Lanie Tankard says:

    I think there's a real difference between writing with a goal of greater self-understanding, and writing with a goal of “getting back” at someone. The former allows the writer broad insights, whereas the latter is like writing with blinders on.

  13. Christy Clonts says:

    I am wondering about how to find an online writing community? Or more directly, how to find an online writing community that is safe and supportive. Do you have suggestions or guidance for us about that? I know the value of having trusted fellow writers who will give sincere response and feedback, especially in the area of personal writing, where I am often just too close to the subject matter to put myself in the place of the reader. I know having response and feedback is necessary for me when it comes to taking the raw, painful writing of the experience and moving beyond that into what it means both for me and, universally, for the potential reader…..moving it from private writing for my own healing to public writing and universal truths and ideas.

  14. Christy Clonts says:

    Dr. Myers, could you give some guidance about the process of finding a safe, supportive, committed online writing group? I know the value of response and feedback from other writers, especially in the area of memoir. Moving writing from the venting, painful personal first drafts to telling a redemptive story is such good, hard work. The distance and perspective that other writers can offer is essential. But how does one approach the search for those online companions for such a journey?

  15. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your visits and your comments. Special thanks to Linda Joy for your wonderful advice and responsiveness to questions. Two questions remain–one about finding an online community you can trust and another about whether vengeance as a motive–even in a first draft that gets rewritten later–might be a problem in finding a voice with universal appeal. These seem like great subjects for future posts. Love to hear if you have more to say about them, Linda Joy.I tossed all the names for two days into a hat. And the winner is Elaine Tankard! Congrats, Lanie. The book will be on the way soon.

  16. Lanie Tankard says:

    Oh wow, my lucky day! I'm looking forward to reading the book! Many thanks!!!

  17. Pingback: Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir: A Sophisticated Guide | 100 Memoirs – Wordpress.com

  18. Pingback: Only Child on naming names in memoirs « Only Child Writes Blog

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