Here’s a questions I get a lot from clients who want to write books about their lives:
“What should I do if I have stories that will make some people in my life look bad? Can I write about my memories without hurting other people’s feelings?”
Many writers don’t want the blowback from real, live people. So, they attempt to write about their lives, but leave out the stories that might make people—real, nonfiction humans—feel bad.
This attempt puts them in conflict with themselves, so they often end up writing along the edges of what they want to say, like a wallflower at a dance club. (hand raised)
Which is fine for getting started on a book, but usually there’s a threshold they just can’t cross if they keep their back to the wall. And a lot of memoir writers get stuck and give up before they finish their first draft.
My way forward in answering this question for myself is to think about another question first.
What EVEN IS writing about my life?
I mean, when people say they want to write about their lives, they almost never mean they want to write an autobiography—that is, a record of the events of their life, told in chronological order.
What they want to write is a memoir. But not only is memoir not autobiography, memoir (contrary to what the name of the genre implies) is not even primarily a record of the author’s memories.
What? If it’s not a record of memories, then what is it?
Memory itself is faulty and unreliable, so you won’t get an accurate record of what happened from your memories.
Consider this: The way you remember an event that happened to you at 5 when you are 40 is different from the way you remembered that event when you were 16.
And, as a 40-year-old, you remember both
1. the event that happened when you were 5, but also you remember
2. the way you remembered it at 16.
Confusing? Here’s what I’m saying:
Memory is faulty. (Any true crime fan knows eyewitness testimony is the most unreliable way to identify the perpetrator at any crime scene.)
So what is a memoir? A book of lies?
A memoir is not an accurate record of what happened based on what you remember.
It’s an accurate record of your evolving understanding of what you remember.
This is an excerpt from a note on the text that appears at the end of Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover.
“We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell. Nothing has revealed that truth to me more than writing this memoir—trying to pin down the people I love on paper, to capture the whole meaning of them in a few words, which is of course impossible. This is the best I can do: to tell that other story next to the one I remember.”
That “other story,” (in my view) is the author’s journey of understanding their own memories. An author’s commitment to taking their readers on that journey is often what gets them over the threshold, unstuck, so they can finish their book.
What do you think?