Facing fear on the page
One of the biggest challenges I see my older students grapple with is fear of judgment. What will people think of me when they know this thing about me? How can I be honest about someone’s behavior without the whole family turning against me? How will it affect my relationships?
These are important and difficult questions to ask.
No one gets through life without a few bumps in the road. My favorite memoirs are the ones in which the author finds their way to redemption or an understanding of themselves despite mistakes they’ve made or after suffering the consequences of someone else’s misdeeds. More often than not, when a student reveals a painful or embarrassing incident from their past, other students comment that they’ve experienced similar struggles. This was especially true at the height of the #MeToo movement. Shame is a powerful force, and pushing through it by sharing deeply personal stories lends courage to others to do the same. I’d argue that great relief also comes from sharing these stories.
Writing about others can be tricky as well. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” I tend to agree. Yet, a well-written memoir will focus on the writer’s experience or perception of situations and not engage in blatant name-calling or shaming.
As for how surprising information will impact real-life relationships, I have seen every possible outcome (besides lawsuits) with my students. Some have grown closer to loved ones after sharing personal stories; others have relatives who dispute every single word and cut them out of their lives. This can be painful, but I often think of a quote from Maya Angelou that describes the pain of keeping our stories to ourselves: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I believe that the pain of bottling up our emotions and stories can be heavier than the disappointment of a family member.
The relief of unloading a cargo of burden through courageously sharing honest reflections of painful or otherwise unpleasant pasts can be incredibly liberating.
In Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, she writes that, “in some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fists, if it’s done right.” While this can be true for so many authors, it is also true that the relief of unloading a cargo of burden through courageously sharing honest reflections of painful or otherwise unpleasant pasts can be incredibly liberating.
(It is interesting to note that I rarely, if ever, hear any of these concerns from male writers. It is almost exclusively women memoirists who worry about revealing too much or hurting people’s feelings, and primarily women who opt instead to protect the people in their lives – even if the people they are writing about have been deceased for decades.)
Finding your voice
No one can tell your story the way you can. No one sees the world through the exact same lens. There is no need to mimic writers you admire or feel intimidated by sophisticated language. Embrace your differences, bring in details and insights that only you can share.
This is especially valuable advice for ESL writers, who can get easily overwhelmed by the writing process or feel like outsiders. Incorporate your views about the world, share the phrases or sayings you used growing up, or reveal your beliefs about the world and the global changes you’ve lived through. Freewriting, timed writing prompts in classes or in groups of friends, reading stories by people who’ve had similar lives can all help foster that unique voice and offer inspiration to folks just starting out.
It is also so important to remember that writing a memoir takes practice; often writers (myself included) will look at a polished, edited, copy-edited, published book and think, “Dear Lord, how will I ever do this?” This is a good time to take a step back and remember that even the most wildly successful authors often trudge through numerous revisions of their work before readers pull it off the shelf at a favorite local bookstore.
There is no need to aim for a perfect first – or even third – draft. In fact, I am a big fan of writing a couple of mediocre revisions, shelving the story or chapter for a few weeks, and coming back with fresh eyes to breathe more of my own unique perspectives into the story. Yes, it can be daunting to revise numerous drafts of a memoir, but it doesn’t have to be. Reflecting on our lives can awaken joyful memories. Writing revisions of our memoirs can help us see our lives through different lenses and bring our unique voices to life.
Dani Burlison is a writer and memoir-writing instructor living in Santa Rosa, California. You can find out about her and her work at daniburlison.com.