Writing Memoir doesn’t mean ‘tell all’
Writing memoir about living people does come with some rules and even warning signs.
We live in a litigious society and whilst people may tolerate family jokes about their quirks and rare moments of inappropriate behaviours, they may not like these instances immortalised in a family story album. Words on a page are unforgiving and a reader may set in their mind-stone facts that are incidental and not true to the person’s nature or life story.
Everyone has moments of indiscretion or behaviours outside of their true nature or perhaps their quirky nature is what makes them unique. A former friend of mine filled his waking hours telling stories of other people’s odd behaviours and life moments, thus ensuring that person earned a reputation for being inappropriate or an odd-ball. This former friend eventually earned himself a poor reputation. Similarly, writing memoir from a disposition of negativity, anger or criticism can lead to your work being dismissed which is not what you intend. It can also leave you vulnerable to legal action.
Telling your Truth
Writing memoir is about telling your truth as you perceive it; however, a wise and responsible writer will firstly explore their perspective with insight and humanity. Writing memoir is often tempered by the unleashing of emotion whether it be anger, joy, grief or happiness. Making a distinction between the expression of words reflecting a focused writer connecting readers to the rich tapestry of their life and family history and the undisciplined drainage of harsh and critical negative views is the hallmark of a quality life story writer and memoirist.
Some Lessons Learned
When I first started writing memoir, it was about my family and friends. They wanted to know firstly, were they in the book and secondly, what did I say about them. I soon learned lessons that have stood me in good stead.
- Write in a positive or even neutral perspective. Use accurate and clear words to describe experiences and record the details of your emotions whether they be grief or joy.
- Describe your feelings and how they made you feel and what they made you do, rather than the indiscretions of the other person. Allow your words to convey powerful experiences without making judgment or criticism.
- Write with compassion and understanding for yourself and your characters. Context is a wonderful leveller for every writer and placing people within their situation whether it be social, environmental or moral can be extremely powerful. Avoid naming behaviours and allow your readers to form their own views.
- Understating difficult issues can be more powerful than a ‘tell-all’ approach; instead, allow your words to connect with your readers’ emotions and experiences. Avoid clichés and the overuse of adjectives and adverbs and any claims you make should be evidenced.
- When writing memoir, consider whose story is it? Is the story yours to tell or does it belong to another. In a class I held not too long ago, a woman stood up and said she had to write the story of her brother’s childhood experiences because he wouldn’t. This is very dangerous territory from a legal perspective and a moral one.
- It is wise to tell those named in your book that you have done so. I remember someone telling me they picked up a published book because they recognised the author as a former acquaintance. They were shocked when they found themselves occupying several pages of this memoir. Luckily it was favourable, and nothing further happened. However, it is wise to gather your courage and tell those in your book that you have named them and their experiences. You may even be surprised when they add further insightful information.
- Another point to remember is that your draft is your draft. You can pour your heart out to your draft sitting securely within your computer and no-one shall ever be the wiser. This is a great way to separate your emotions from your professional writing self. Multiple rewrites and edits will often sort the weeds from the rich tapestry of life stories and family characters.
Memory is not always Truth
One lesson I have learned in my writing memoir experience is that sometimes my memory is not quite correct. My recall can be shaped by my perceptions at the age of the experience, my emotional integrity at the time or some external pressure that shaped my memory of the experience. It is always wise to make it clear to readers that this is your memory of the experience and check your facts. You may be surprised!
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