Write as if your parents are dead. –Anne Lamott
When I attended AWP last month, in nearly every session someone asked some version of this question: “How can I write my story without hurting the other people in my life?” Other versions of this question include something like the following:
“How do you deal with your parents getting mad?”
“What if your friends stop talking to you?”
“What’s fair game in story telling? When does my story stop being mine?”
“What can I write about my kids? My spouse?”
That’s usually when I got up to leave. I didn’t think I needed to hear this question rehashed and re-answered. I thought I knew the answers. I thought I had figured out this puzzle, solved this riddle. I had spent many years asking some version of this same question. And though I feel like I’ve wrestled it to the ground over the past several years, somehow it keeps popping up.
All of the writing books and books on creativity that I’ve read in the past few months have addressed The Question: Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, Writing is My Drink, by Theo Nestor, Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Clearly this is a universal problem for writers, and obviously given the plethora of revealing, heartfelt, truth-telling memoirs, many authors have pushed beyond their fears. As Nestor points out in her lovely book, “the writers we really admire and adore are the ones who are willing to take a risk and say what most wouldn’t dare.”
But how do they do manage?
Here’s the basic, most essential bottom line for me: if I don’t write it, I will never have to worry about who reads it. In other words, there is a huge long process to be navigated before anyone will ever read my writing. If I just stay in the place of worry and keep all of my words inside for fear of being judged or misunderstood, I will never be a writer.
The fear of never being a writer trumped my fear of what people might think about me and what I wrote. I managed to set aside my worries about offending people and settled in to write. After all, I started in a memoir writing class where no one knew me—fuck it if they didn’t like what I wrote. I had nothing to lose but my nagging fears of never being a writer.
But they did like what I wrote, and their liking my words, their positive feedback, and their support bolstered my courage. A few of us in the writing group still worried about our parents in particular, but we banded together, encouraged one another, and urged each other to write our truths and worry later when we actually had a publisher about who was going to be offended.
I have so many fears about speaking and writing my truths—paramount among them was the notion that somehow I would tell my story wrong, that I would put my story down and someone would say to me “nuh uh, that did not happen.” I hardly felt strong enough to write my story, let alone defend it. I had no idea when I started writing my memoir that I would find myself in that position so soon. When I wrote the essay “Body Language” that eventually appeared in Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, I thought I was just writing another chapter in the long slog that was my unpublished memoir. So, I was able to tell my truths without worrying too much about who might read them. But then, the piece was accepted into the anthology and publication became a reality.
Two of my fears came to pass, sort of. The piece was picked up by The Friendly Atheist, a blog on patheos.com and reprinted in full. I had steeled myself for my family’s reaction to what I wrote, but I wasn’t expecting to have to deal with the online comments. My mom could accept my truths about my experiences growing up, but she recoiled from the commenters who labeled her as cruel, who said she should be punished. The saddest result for me was that she felt like she couldn’t come to any of the readings for fear she’d be judged.
The other thing that happened was that my brother, having read my essay, looked at me and said “did we grow up in the same family? I do not remember any of this.” For a moment I assumed he was challenging my version of events, but what I realized after I pondered it (and talked to my therapist about it, of course) was that yes, in fact, we had grown up in different versions of the same family. As the eldest sibling, by four years, as a girl child, I did have a different upbringing than he did. He was 14 when my story took place—there was no reason in the world he would have known about the events. It was, truly, my story to tell.
The other part of this truth-telling, honesty, being vulnerable on the page thing is something I am still coming to grips with, and that is the creation of a persona. I am not the narrator of my story. The narrator is the narrator. In Still Writing, Dani Shapiro addresses the notion of exposure toward the end, in a section entitled, fittingly, Exposure. She tells the story about a woman who approaches the author Frank McCourt and says to him “I feel like I know everything about you!” to which he responds “Oh darlin’, it’s just a book.”
Shapiro goes on to explain that yes, while we may feel like we are flinging open the doors of our lives to the world, we are actually choosing what to reveal. We are not, she reminds us, writing a diary or stripping naked. As much as I feel like I leave a good portion of myself on the page, there is so much more that I do not write about. I employ, in the words of my therapist, discernment. Occasionally to make a point I will use hyperbole. I become a character. The people in my life become characters: The Little Woman, The Children, My Therapist. Crazy Neighbor Lady.
Telling a greater truth by manipulating the day to day unfolding of our lives is a tricky concept, one that gets almost as much attention as how can we write our stories without offending anyone. But as Nestor points out (sort of via Vivian Gornick): “The story is the magic that the writer creates out of the events, the brew of insight, metaphor, and voice that renders the events meaningful.”
No writer I know wants to sit on Oprah’s couch and go through what James Frey went through. But there’s a difference between lying (passing off as truth what never actually happened) and rearranging the facts in order to better tell our stories, to better get at the larger truth, the Take Away.
Honesty in story telling is a dance. As writers, I think we seek connection with others through our words, and we can only authentically connect when we make ourselves vulnerable but we can’t just vomit our emotions on to the page. We have to shape, add, subtract, mold. We have to use our imaginations, as Nestor points out, to forge a coherent, universal story out of our personal experiences.