Drawing the Line in Memoir Writing

Likely we’ve all done it — drawn a line in the sand, or in the dirt, maybe through the grass, or just in the air.

That line drew boundaries in some dispute or dare or discussion.

In memoir writing, we, the tellers of our stories, need to be cautious about drawing a line in our story telling.  Just how far do we go with the truth?  What actually forms a lie?  Who might we hurt in the process?

When writing your memoir,
the truth of your story is what you know. 

For example, I have two brothers, one older by 14 years and the other younger by 8 years.  All raised by the same mother.  All experiencing her temperament and discipline.  Yet, when I write my story it may read entirely differently from their stories.  After all, we each knew our mother at different stages of her life.

Does that mean I don’t write my story as I know it?  In my opinion, absolutely not.  What it does mean is that I write what I know, my truth, my story.  If my story involves close family or friends, I must exercise honesty and kindness in my writing.  I am careful not to be judgmental in my writing.

If any part of that story mentions either of my brothers or both, it is right for me to mention to them what I’m writing so they are not blindsided when my work is published.  In fact, at some point, their memories could be helpful in fleshing out certain details about dates and places.  Facts about other family members.  If willing, they could become a great resource for my story.

Write your story just as you want to write it.

It will take many drafts and many months of effort to reach that final draft.  To begin worrying about reactions and fallout from family and friends as you begin writing is time spent needlessly.  By the time you reach the final draft, these people may no longer be a part of your story.

Be fair — share your writing with those
mentioned in your story
.

This is especially important if family members or friends are main characters.  Sharing with others encourages their acceptance and support of your work.  And, as in a law firm when negotiating a major transaction, due diligence is important.

However, share only your final draft.  After all, more revisions and drafts may exclude something that would be upsetting to someone.  Why upset someone unnecessarily.  Likewise, your reader might really like something you’ve written that is taken out as you progress toward the final draft.

Being open to editing and/or making minor changes if a family member or close friend is troubled by something is a kind and gracious act.  However, don’t let these changes alter the course of your story.  The question to ask when making such edits is:  Is this really necessary or crucial to the story?  After all, relationships with family and friends should rank higher than the words you have written.

Find your comfort zone and
reach a level of 100% in that zone
.

If you write a paragraph, a passage or a sentence, and something about the words leave you feeling somewhat uneasy, take it out.  Uneasy feelings are a sure sign that something is wrong.  That’s the last thing you want to haunt you.

* * *

There is no guarantee that if follow these guidelines or someone else’s that everything is completed without some difficulty.  Writing about real people complicates your work and can be dangerous.  My best advice:  Make sure you find and follow the best process available.

10 thoughts on “Drawing the Line in Memoir Writing

  1. Sherrey, I agree that if you feel uneasy, take it out. I had my son read the part I wrote about him the year he and I were together in Arizona. He asked me to change one thing . . . and I did. People outside my family . . . no, I did not ask them to read what I wrote because I had a reason for changing their names and identifying characteristics, which memoirists can do as long as they stick to the the truth of what happened, the conversations, etc. Although as I said in the Author’s Note to Morning at Wellington Square – these are my memories and they may differ from the memories of others. I would not recommend memoir writers ask everyone they are writing about to review the material; this, for a number of reasons. Anyway, I don’t think you meant that. So, yes, if you feel uneasy take it out. It helps you sleep better at night!

    1. Susan, you are exactly right. I didn’t mean everyone a writer is including in his/her memoir — just those family members and perhaps any exceptionally close friends. And sleeping better at night is a very good thing! Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comments.

  2. Very timely, Sherrey and Kathy. I am going to share a chapter of draft with a friend from elementary school, after seeing her for the first time in more than 50 years. I will want to revise as much as possible before sharing the draft, and I could leave her out of the story if she has severe objections. Hoping she will understand and eventually, at least, enjoy being a character in my story.

  3. Sherrey,This post captures everything we memoir writers seem to fear the most- stating our truth without disparaging anyone; being true to who we are and need to be while being mindful of how our truth will impact others and yet being able to stand firm in what needs to be part of our story. You have done a masterful job of addressing this concern as well as offering practical ways to deal with it. I have to say, this is the best post yet on how to deal with truth in memoir.:-) Thank you!

    1. Kathy, I am humbled by your words. It goes without saying that having you as a follower and a mentor of my writing and blogs is invaluable, and perhaps this post is due in part to reading your blog and exchange of ideas between us. Just let me say “thank you” for the encouragement and inspiration.

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