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The Thing You Think You Cannot Say: Writing a Memoir You Can Live With

This post originally appeared on the San Francisco Writers Conference site.


Writing a memoir is like writing a detective story where you get to find out what happened—except, it’s to you. It’s a complicated challenge. In the first place, you have to find your best stories, and tell them in a way that is interesting to other people, with the proper level of detail to convince your readers these things happened, but enough emotional resonance that they step into your shoes and live your life as if it was their own.

None of that compares, however, to the skill level required to handle the times when you hurt people or when people hurt you. It’s a Catch-22. On the one hand, you’ve got to reveal your truth. We need to know it in order to understand your problems. We need it to root for you and understand your personality and your drive. On the other hand, you may still want to have Thanksgiving with these people. Or not get sued by them. Or just generally be fair about how you’ve decided to expose (parts of) your life and now you’ve made a decision for select other people that you are going to expose theirs, too.

Before you start leaving out the best parts, or disguising people’s true identity with greater or lesser success, let me suggest you just write the first draft as clearly and honestly as you can. Assemble your possible materials and try them out; get the feel of what you’re even talking about. When you do that, then one of three things might happen:


  1. You might find out that what you wrote is not really a big deal at all. The person or persons you are referring to review the text and barely shrug their shoulders. They might even suggest additional dialogue or plot twists that improve the overall presentation. And the extra momentum generated by their approval inspires you to new heights of connectedness and inventiveness.
  2. You might find out you don’t need it. You were all set to relate a dark and depressing scene, but it doesn’t fit the overall theme. There actually isn’t a place for it. It’s always better to find that out first. It doesn’t pay to seek out an approval from others over very sticky material that’s going to get dropped from subsequent drafts anyway.
  3. You might have to face the music. And when that time comes, you might find that even the process itself can shift your understanding. I recently sent off a section of my memoir to some good friends of mine. It was a third of a chapter, thousands of closely observed and thematically relevant words…but the moment I pushed “send,” I knew it had to come out. Even though I was present in the events I related, it just wasn’t my story to tell—and my friends confirmed that.

While I do recommend writing a first draft free of external influence, I don’t recommend skipping the stage where you show your material to the people you are writing about. Sometimes authors will just hope that a featured subject doesn’t come across their writing, or they hope they do come across it, and that way settle some scores with them in public. Neither of these options has a lot of lift to them.

Mary Karr gives this advice in her book on memoir writing, “I notify [those mentioned] way in advance, to give them a chance to shoot it down (nobody has yet). I keep pages private till the book’s done, and at the end, I send work out to folks I wrote about long before type’s set. As a side note, it’s not my nature to write at any length about people I don’t like. Save portraits of a grandmother who pissed me off and two pedophiles, it’s mostly love that drives me to the page.”

Knowing that you are going to have to show a passage or a chapter to some other people might stop your heart at first. But that’s the same heart that has been stopped by these conflicts and hurts for years. Now, you have the process of writing on your side. Working through the introduction of your memoir to your community might actually help you find the way you want to write your book after all. I simply love the memoirist Susan Steele’s construction: “The first draft was the gory, adult, vengeful Susan; the second healed me; the third healed my family; and the fourth was the story others needed to read.”

This kind of last draft is you reaching out to others with fairness. It is also reaching inwards to find transcendence. It probably doesn’t require arcane Buddhist commentary to believe that our healing necessarily includes other people’s healing. When a delicate topic gets exposed and stays stuck there it doesn’t help anyone. When it goes through an arc, however, when exposure is followed by inquiry, development, and understanding—well that might create a mini-monument to how we want to live in this world.

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