All in the Family: Memoir Q & A

As promised, here is an interview with today’s memoir expert, Linda Joy Myers. Dr. Myers was kind enough to answer six questions about specific cases concerning what, if anything, an author owes to family and friends in a memoir. This post is also Day Two of the giveaway. If you leave a comment below, you will be entered into a chance to win a copy of The Power of Memoir. The drawing will be held at noon on Friday March 26. Your comment can be in the form of your own question to Linda Joy, who just might answer you, also.

Q.  Annie Dillard thinks that any relative or friend who becomes part of a memoir you plan to publish should have the right to see and respond to what you write before it gets published. She says it isn’t fair to them not to have this right, since they don’t have access to a publisher for their own stories. If that criterion were used for writers whose families are estranged/dysfunctional, they might never publish. It seems that authors with relatively happy childhoods might be very different from those who are exposing great secrets or painful childhoods. Your thoughts?

A. Yes, it seems true that the challenges faced by a writer who has a more or less intact, healthy family will be different from someone whose family is difficult, combative, critical, or otherwise “dysfunctional.” However, that’s the kind of family most people write about! Perhaps memoirists who are from problematic backgrounds are drawn to writing memoir as a way of sorting out the past. Of course, no family is perfect, and more than likely various eccentricities pop up even in the most loving of families, which could create situations for the memoir writer to handle if the book is published. I think it’s an unspoken, or more likely understood, ethic that if you put real people in your book, especially if the names are the same or they are identifiable, they should be notified. Even if all the portraits are positive, as memoirists, we are exposing a real person to the eyes of the world. The convention is to have people read the sections they appear in, if you are on speaking terms. If not, change names and identifying characteristics, even if that means changing names for the character, the streets, town and anything that exposes them. If published, the legal branch of the publishing company can vet the manuscript as well, but since so many memoirs are self published, I think it’s important for people to keep these ethics in mind.

 Q. Some writers who tell horrendous tales (Mary Karr in all three of her memoirs, Jeanette Walls in A Glass Castle), bring the conversation with their mothers into the story itself. “Tell the truth,” said Jeanette Walls’ mother, if I recall correctly. That comment has probably given a lot of fearful writers hope that they too will be forgiven for telling the truth as they experienced it. Also, readers relax when they know the story has been vetted.

A. I think we’d all love the blessing of our mothers as we expose the family heart and its quirks, but for many that is not going to happen. And yes, I think it’s a memoir writers dream that once we have expressed our inner selves that everyone else who misunderstood or abused us will come around to see things from our point of view. If you are lucky, that might happen, but I don’t think memoirists should write a memoir counting on these outcomes. All you can do is to write your truth, digging deep inside to find the essence of your story, and then behave with compassion and good listening as best you can when others in the family react. I’ve heard wonderful stories and not so great ones about the outcome of writing a memoir and its impact on “real” people who were characters in the story.

Q. Rhoda Janzen, author of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, was worried about the home reception of her memoir.  According to a podcast interview with her on Writers on Writing, her publisher advised her to show advance copy to two people, which she did. Those two were supportive, but several others, treated less sympathetically, have not been happy with their portrayals. If you don’t show the manuscript to all actors in your drama, but you do show it to some, how do you deal with the fallout?

A. This brings us back to question number one—how to handle the memoir with family. I don’t know the exact details of Rhoda’s decisions about showing her book to her family, so I can’t comment on her. Clearly, each writer needs to decide how to be ethical with the fallout from publishing a memoir, and can’t afford to be in denial or some fantasy world about it. Let’s face it—the very problematic people that you were writing about are still the same people they were. Maybe you have been changed and transformed by the memoir, but things still putter along in the rest of the world as they always have. Deep change is possible, when a person wants it and works on it in themselves, and sometimes our words can effect change in others. This is what we might hope, but we need to remind ourselves of the realities of the human personality and be prepared for whatever might arise after the book is out.

 Q. What has been your own journey with this issue? Has your understanding of memoir as healing journey for the writer and readers expanded to include healing for the antagonists in the story itself? Do you know of any such healing stories following the publication of a memoir?

A. For myself, I believed that some members in my extended Iowa family were positively affected by my portrait of them and their families, partly because I chose to leave out such details as sexual molestation and other family secrets. The theme of my book Don’t Call Me Mother was about three generations of mothers who abandoned their daughters, so I didn’t include details of sexual abuse into the mother theme. The Iowa family had reacted strongly when I confronted a family member about past abuses a few years earlier, and the goal of the book was not to expose that family’s dark secrets, but to offer a portrait of the Iowa family as supportive and loving to me, giving me a sense of family that I’d never had.

However, in the end, I was ousted from the circle because I had shined light into the issues of abuse and had written about the family, though positively. Yes, I changed names and identifying labels as well. I think they couldn’t handle the idea that I’d written a memoir about any of them. I discovered that every one of them knew of that particular person’s molesting tendencies, and that when they were young, some of the girls had been protected and told to stay away from him. Others of us were not protected. In the end, the memoir and who I am resulted in estrangement, which was a huge loss, as it was the last remnants of family that I had. But if there had been some kind of love and empathy there, we all could have come to terms. Alas, that was not the case.

I know a woman who developed much deeper connection to several sisters and her mother because of her memoir, and who came in contact with beloved old friends and other family members. Her book was composed primarily of amusing stories about the family, with a few harsher truths woven in. Another of my students received wonderful accolades from her siblings when she published her memoir. They all learned new things about each other they’d never known, and shared more stories and intimate details of living in an orphanage and what that was like for all of them. Her memoir, worked on for several years and many drafts, brought them together even more.

Q. Forgiveness seems to be a big theme in a healing memoir. Forgiveness of self and forgiveness of others. Do you agree? What can a writer do to increase the likelihood of both kinds of forgiveness through the telling of her or his story?

A. Ahh, forgiveness, my favorite topic! One of the most challenging emotional issues is forgiveness—of others who have wronged us and especially, I think for ourselves. I own five books on forgiveness, and think and talk about the subject a great deal with clients and writing students. Some people think that forgiving means forgetting, but it does not. Forgiveness can’t be forced, nor does it work to try to “fly over” the issue or problem and just pretend you have forgiven, because the body/mind knows its own truths and it can’t be fooled. Exploring our truths and story allows us to find perspectives we never had before. I teach all my students to write in scene—putting themselves back in time, inhabiting the body and point of view of who they were then as a way of repairing the past. We become witnesses to ourselves and to others in this process—like an observing ego able to see with perspective. We also slow down and unravel who other people were/are to us through writing in scene, and as we write about them, we may discover traits, feelings, and reactions anew. Each person has a story and a unique point of view. Though memoirists are accused of being “navel-gazing” and narcissistic, I think that being contemplative and reflective about life and relationships is a spiritual endeavor, bringing us closer to the possibility of redemption. We need to open up the dark stories, even if we don’t publish them, and write through the pain to get to the other side. All of the mystics and teachers through the ages share this wisdom, and I’ve seen it to be true. How people do that, and what they discover are part of the mystery of the journey.

Q. How to deal with the family member or friend who was left out of your story and feels offended not to be playing a starring role?

 A. Again, this is another family issue that requires skills from the writer that has more to do with communication, empathy, and good listening than any general comment I can make. Each person has his or her own path with family. If someone is offended, just listen, empathize, and blame the publisher for what is left out! If you are self-publishing, it’s more on your own shoulders, but in the end, as you finish your memoir, all the ghosts both living and dead will swirl around and haunt you, so it’s good to practice to consider how you will handle their accusations. In the end, it’s your story, not theirs, and you have to claim it.

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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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19 Responses to All in the Family: Memoir Q & A

  1. Susan Ramsey says:

    It's worth noting that, positive as Dillard's representation of her family seems to us, her mother is on record as saying “I think Annie loves us, but she doesn't like us much.” (And at the farthest end of the scale, I saw someone ask Julia Alvarez how her Dominican family responded to How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent by saying “Your worst nightmare.” On the other hand Pat Conroy's father gloried in being The Great Santini, so one never knows, do one?)

  2. Walker says:

    This is a great post, thank you for tackling these topics. I'm new to this blog and new to Linda.. but I'll be seeking out your books and reading! (even if I don't win!)

  3. Walker says:

    Linda, as an additional thought. I'm going to post about yesterday's column you wrote with my thoughts about the phrase you used on women and our oft silenced voices.

  4. marycoxpace says:

    This is a very informative post offering valuable insights and suggestions to memoir writers. I'll be buying your books and sharing your titles with writer friends.

  5. Tom DeWolf says:

    When I finished the rough draft of Inheriting the Trade I sent a copy to each of my cousins who were main characters in my story. I asked them to let me know if my portrayal of them, and of anything else in the book, was accurate and fair. I did not promise to change anything as a result of their input but I did promise to consider what they had to say. In fact, I did make changes to the book as a result of their input. Hearing things from their perspective helped me to see the larger story. I also changed a few names and other details to protect the privacy of some individuals.I believe this process made the book better. Dr. Myers, your comments here are spot on from my experience. Thank you for your participation here.

  6. speeddatingboston says:

    Memoirs are an essential part of our history and what we leave for generations to come. However, not all memoirs tell a good story or a story well told so to read a good review before committing yourself to a memoir is essential.

  7. Susan, You make such a good point. The reactions are a varied as fingerprints, and it depends so much on how the family sees itself. The Great Santini, though showing how brutal the father was, perhaps showed to the father his own version of himself, that he was important enough to earn a whole book about him! On the other hand, families that are very close and/or very private can feel exposed and angry at the author for writing something that everyone doesn't agree upon. All versions of the family story will be different, but some families, in the therapy world we call them “enmeshed” families, don't allow for differences, thus there's a power struggle about who is “right.” In a top down power pyramid, with the “boss” at the top who is supposed to control everything and everyone, deviation from the script is breaking the rules. I talk about family dynamics such as this in my book. It seems to help writers to find out there are theories about families that can help the memoir writer sort out these challenges.

  8. Thank you Mary! I do hope that my new book is a helpful guide to memoir writers, and that people can see how I worked with the challenges of writing in scene and traversing time in Don't Call Me Mother. I try to cover all the aspects of writing a memoir in The Power of Memoir, from beginnings, to techniques and structure, all the way to healing and spiritual meditations and affirmations.

  9. marycoxpace says:

    Linda, thank you for your response! Will be keeping up with you online.Best to you,Mary

  10. clifh says:

    Pondering the issue or forgiveness reminds me of this quotation from _Change of Heart_ by Jodi Picoult. “… in order to forgive, you have to remember how you were hurt in the first place. And that in order to forget, you had to accept your role in what had happened.”I interpret this not as blaming the victim, but rather trying to broaden the horizons of one’s own perspective of past wrongs.Dr. Myers' suggestion to “write your first draft in complete privacy” impresses me as a good action plan when one is dealing with past hurts. A possible plan for moving beyond that point is for the memoirist to temporarily become a fiction writer. I have often wondered how writers of fiction are able to describe inner feelings of characters they couldn't possibly have experienced firsthand. Perhaps if one could write a first person narrative of the possible interior thoughts and motives of the person who caused them pain, they might discover some interesting possibilities. Writing more than one version of this exercise could perhaps lead to a better understanding of the past. Maybe with luck there will be bits and pieces of these written narratives that can be incorporated into one’s own memoir. If not, it can be the beginning of a creative novel.

  11. Lanie Tankard says:

    Isn't there a difference in the quality of the writer's voice when one writes seeking universal truths as opposed to a vendetta?

  12. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks for the comment about Annie Dillard's parents, Susan. That puts an interesting slant on things. Come to think of it, they don't figure too prominantly in An American Childhood and seem a little distant. You tempt me to reread.

  13. 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.

  14. Lanie Tankard says:

    How exciting! I'm looking forward to reading the book! Muchas gracias!

  15. whollyjeanne says:

    well, hey shirley. i've been out in jeanneville for what seems like forever. i find my way back here – finally – and aren't you having the most timely discussion and interesting interview. off to snag me a copy of this book now. so good to be back here.

  16. By way of adding to the thinking being done here, I'd like to add a cross-reference on this topic to Wendy Burden's post. Here's a snippet:”If my book were a novel, perhaps I would have exhibited more sympathy. But it's a memoir, and neither sympathy nor objectivity is the point. Oh well, they'll all get over it. Or not.”http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wendy-burden/dead…Happy writing!Kathleen

  17. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Kathleen. Very stimulating column. You have added to the conversation. Have you read the memoir? Did the essay make you want to read it?

  18. I have not read this memoir, but it is on my list to check out. It intrigued me as I have a friend who continues to maintain her Mother's Facebook page in memorium. And, of course, it further stimulated my thinking on the topic at hand: how might our families and friends react to our memoir writing. My observation is that even I have different reactions to my own memories depending on how present experiences inform the past. To that end, I've been using “Thinking About Memoir” by Abigail Thomas, which has exercises designed to practice writing about the same experience from different perspectives, with different tone, etc.

  19. Chelsea says:

    Nice interview!

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