Three Ways to Write Your Memoir/Personal Story

Saturday, October 01, 2011

As many of you know, I've written two memoirs (so far!). One is about the painful early years in trying to figure out how to help my daughter, Jaimie (Not Just Spirited: A Mom's Sensational Journey With SPD). The other is about my childhood being raised by a mother with untreated bipolar disorder and alcoholism (White Elephants). Even though I'm narrating these stories, they aren't only my stories to tell. What I mean is, there are others directly or indirectly involved in the telling of the stories--and some of them aren't excited with me sharing them. Sound familiar all you memoir and personal story writers out there?

I didn't find as much of that when Not Just Spirited came out but very much so with White Elephants. In fact, I was actually advised by many people to create a fictional version of the story so that it would be more...'warmly accepted'. I've never been afraid to talk about things that may seem taboo to others but after the story came out, I panicked. What would my family and friends in the book think?

This is actually a very common thing that many writers face, not just those of us writing memoirs addressing serious issues. A lot of people really don't like their business out there for the world to read whether the story is fun, happy, terrifying, goofy or serious. And one of the most popular questions I'm asked in interviews is, "What did/does ______ think of what you wrote?" I guess I just deal with that because certain stories need to be told a specific way. That doesn't mean I disregarded what so-and-so would think of what I'd written but more remembering that I could still tell my story while being respectful of so-and-so's feelings. We've talked about this several times in recent issues of WOW as well as here on The Muffin but let's talk about the three different ways you can share a story:

(1) Fictional: As I mentioned above this was how I was told to write White Elephants. Here you'd simply tell your story through fictional characters. This is the 'safest' way to tell a personal story because you can hide behind the characters you create, altering the setting, location and other things that would make it recognizable to those involved (or at least veil it so they won't feel threatened).

(2) 'Based on a True Story': Hollywood tells stories this way all of the time. The story or events are true but names, characters, location, etc. have been changed so it's standing on the fence between 'fiction' and 'real'. Again, this helps veil certain things (or people) but you can actually say the story (or events) really someone.

(3) Memoir: This is the route I went. You tell the story. The whole naked truth with all the people, events and/or issues invovled--the good, bad and ugly. This is the most difficult for others involved with your story because you're naming names. There are things you can do, though, to make it a bit easier:
  • Talk to those involved. Tell them you're writing this story and ask how they'd feel. Some people won't care, others may not want to be involved. For those who don't want to be involved, try working around that part of the story by touching on the event/person but not going into too much detail. (Eustacia Cutler, for example, wrote her incredible memoir about raising her inspirational daughter Temple Grandin but left her other children out of the book, as per their request. They were okay with the book but didn't want to be in it. That's cool and workable.) I did this too with some experiences.
  • Focus on the main part of the story. For example, in White Elephants, the main part of the story was my relationship with my mom--not my brothers', sister, dad or step-dad. Mine. And although we are all connected because of my mom, each of us has our own story to tell and I would never be so bold as to share their stories for them. So I simply kept each of them as a presence being careful to only focus on me and my mom.
  • Give first names only or use a different name. I didn't use the last names of any of my friends who were in White Elephants (not that any of them would have cared if I had). This gives them some anonymity in that only those closest to us would know exactly who they were. This was important to me because it was my way of also giving them a nod and gratitude for being there through extremely rough times.
  • What's in the book stays in the book; what isn't stays private. There are a few things I didn't include in both White Elephants and Not Just Spirited for various reasons. But I don't talk about them in interviews or whatever either. If I left them out of the book out of respect for certain people, then I shouldn't be discussing them openly outside of the book either.
  • Imply without coming right out with it. You can lightly touch on situations that may be too uncomfortable for those involved without getting into the nitty gritty. Give enough information that your reader 'gets' where you're going then continue. For example, I address serious issues like child/sexual abuse, rape, eating disorders and more in White Elephants but I give more details than are required.

You see? There are several ways you can tell that important story while still respecting everyone involved. In my opinion, though, if you're going to be brave enough to tell your story, tell it your way. Believe me when I say you can't make everyone happy nor can you keep the ripples out of the water completely. But you can create a story that needs to be read. Just be honest, be true to yourself and trust your gut.


Unknown said...

In my writing groups, we discussed these issues.
Thanks for providing realistic choices.

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