6 What If’s of Memoir Writing

As I have traveled the memoir writing path, I have faced a number of “what if” questions. Perhaps you are beginning to write your story or are midway through. It’s possible these same questions have haunted you. Let me share with you how I have resolved some of these stumbling blocks.

WHAT IF I don’t know what to write?

Not everyone knows what they are going to write when they begin a book. That’s why we write the first draft without pausing to edit or correct as we go. This “stream of consciousness” writing will allow the memories or family stories to come back to you.

If you have a central subject, such as abuse, violence, grief, or illness, to build on, it will be easier to begin. But not everybody starts this way. Perhaps you have a diary or journal from some important time in your life. That will be a great help.

WHAT IF my memories are not 100% clear?

Memories are like photographs. Some fading occurs over the years. But items like photos, letters, diaries, or journals will sharpen those memories. Talking with family or friends about times past will also benefit in calling up memories for you. And, believe it or not, certain smells, colors, or places will do the same. Give it a try.

WHAT IF someone challenges my truth? WHAT IF family members object to my writing my story?

Your story is your story. Therefore, what you recall about your story is your truth. Not everyone in a family, workplace, group, or community remembers every incident the same. Not everyone in a family will be excited about your project. We are attuned to what goes on around us in different ways. We don’t perceive the same visuals or audibles, nor do we have the same abilities of recall. If someone questions your truth or recall or reason for writing, remind them this is how you remember it and if they don’t remember things the same, they’ll need to tell their own story.

WHAT IF family members don’t want to be included in my story?

This is a difficult question and a difference of opinion on this point is best handled on each particular writer’s watch. In my case, I have two brothers who could play major roles in some of my memories. I have asked their permission to include them by name; they have not responded. I have decided to include them with only generic references to who they are, i.e. “my older brother” and “my younger brother.” However, I’m writing under my name, using my family name and my parents’ full names, and people are going to know who those brothers are. I do not, however, include any stories of which I do not have first-hand knowledge.

If this is an issue in your writing experience, you will need to discuss this with your family members. Some may ask to see what you’ve written about them and if they ask politely, you may choose to cut any references unpleasing to them.

WHAT IF my story is the same story someone else has written?

My story is similar to many memoirs written before and some written in the future will be similar to mine and many others. It is a story of parental abuse. Yet, I am able to get beyond this “what if” because I believe my story is able to offer hope to victims in similar circumstances. It is my belief that each story resonates for at least one person who reads it. If that reader gains a miniscule grain of hope, then my writing has not been in vain.

WHAT IF no one wants to read my story?

Every writer faces this question. We have no way of knowing who, if anyone will want to read our stories or books. Writers usually write because they love the written word. Many cannot go a day without writing. We can only hope our articulation of our stories is capable of moving into the mainstream of books written. In so doing, they will perhaps make it to a bookshelf in a retail setting, a stack in a local library, or if digitally published to a site where traffic brings an interested reader our way. Don’t fret over whether someone will read your story. Write it first and then see what happens.

I hope these have been helpful to anyone facing some or all the “what if’s” I have addressed. If there is one I haven’t listed, and there are some, please let me know and I’ll add them to a later post.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? If you have faced some of these or other “what if’s” in your writing, how have you handled them?

How to Be True to Both the Living and the Dead in Memoir by Guest David W. Berner

Today my guest is David W. Berner, author of Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons, recipient of a Book of the Year Award from the Chicago Writers AssociationAs part of his WOW! Women on Writing blog tour, David shares his thoughts on how to be true to both the living and the dead when writing memoir.  Join us in the comment section to share your own thoughts on this topic.

Welcome, David!

Author David W. Berner
Author David W. Berner

There’s an exchange in my memoir Any Road Will Take You There between my father and me as we sit at my kitchen table late one night. My young child, my first, and their mother are in bed. The two of us are alone drinking bottles of beer and talking about my new role, fatherhood. It’s a key scene in the book. Still, no one else but the two of us could have remembered that conversation.

I wrote about that moment after my father had died. So, I had to recall a decade old dialogue the best I could and rely on only my shaky memory. I didn’t expect to recall our exact conversation, of course, and honestly didn’t need to, but I was determined to write about that night in the truest, most authentic way. I wanted to capture the essence of that evening. Of course I had only my own recollections. But is that fair? Doesn’t Dad have a say here? And how could he have a say now?

There is no other way to a write a personal story than to tell it like it is. But what if you can’t run the details by someone, check the facts? First of all, you are not writing journalism, but you do want to recreate the spirit of the truth. Be honest with your story, honest with what you remember, and even if others have passed on and you can’t verify, try to step away to consider other perspectives. I truly believe the reader will know when you are not being honest with yourself, and ultimately will sense when you are not being honest or mindful of how another may have remembered that moment, incident, or conversation.

And what about the living?

In my first memoir, Accidental Lessons, there are several scenes with my ex-wife. First, I must tell you, the two of us are good friends. It is far from the stereotypical friction laden relationship of former spouses. Despite this, my publisher insisted on signed releases from everyone mentioned in the book. When I presented the release to my former wife, this is what she said: I’ll agree with one condition. When it’s made into a movie, Susan Sarandon plays me.

Just for the record, no movie deal yet and nothing in writing from Susan.

In general, I believed everything I wrote about my ex-wife was quite flattering. It wasn’t that I necessarily set out to write all great things about her, it’s just that what was needed for the narrative, her part of it, did not need to be about the times of our lives that were entangled in disagreement. So, when she read the manuscript, she had little problem with any of it. Was it true? Yes. I needed to reveal only what was needed.

But what do you do when someone you write about is absolutely appalled by what you plan to publish or is outright angry about your words? Maybe their version of the same incident is much different in their eyes, and this creates serious tension, risking the relationship with that individual.

If possible, let all those who are main subjects in the story read your manuscript. Prepare them for what you have written; let them know it may not be easy to read and that you are writing about difficult matters. Then, allow them to tell you exactly what they think, to point out errors, minor or major, and permit them to suggest changes. And if possible, ask them to write down their version of the scene or incident in question. Our truths are completely our own. They are no one else’s, and you must be true to your story. But permitting input from others can help you understand their truth, and some version of their story might actually be very good material to add to a redraft. It could, and many times will make your story better.

In the end, the narrative is your responsibility and you alone should decide whether or not to include others’ suggestions, thoughts, or versions. In the end, no matter what, the story you have written is yours. Keep it yours.

Get to Know David Berner:

David W. Berner–the award winning author of Accidental Lessons and Any Road Will Take You There–was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he began his work as a broadcast journalist and writer. He moved to Chicago to work as a radio reporter and news anchor for CBS Radio and later pursue a career as a writer and educator. His book Accidental Lessons is about his year teaching in one of the Chicago area’s most troubled school districts. The book won the Golden Dragonfly Grand Prize for Literature and has been called a “beautiful, elegantly written book” by award-winning author Thomas E. Kennedy, and “a terrific memoir” by Rick Kogan (Chicago Tribune and WGN Radio). Any Road Will Take You There is the author’s story of a 5000-mile road trip with his sons and the revelations of fatherhood. The memoir has been called “heartwarming and heartbreaking” and “a five-star wonderful read.”

David can be found online at:

Website: www.davidwberner.com Twitter: @davidwberner Twitter: @anyroadbook Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/David-W-Berner-Writer/190345939480 Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/david.w.berner

A Brief Look at David’s Memoir:

Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and SonsAny Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons is a heartwarming and heartbreaking story told with humor and grace, revealing the generational struggles and triumphs of being a dad, and the beautiful but imperfect ties that connect all of us.

Recipient of a Book of the Year Award from the Chicago Writers Association, Any Road Will Take You There is honest, unflinching, and tender.

In the tradition of the Great American Memoir, a middle-age father takes the reader on a five-thousand-mile road trip–the one he always wished he’d taken as a young man. Recently divorced and uncertain of the future, he rereads the iconic road story–Jack Kerouac’s On the Road–and along with his two sons and his best friend, heads for the highway to rekindle his spirit.

However, a family secret turns the cross-country journey into an unexpected examination of his role as a father, and compels him to look to the past and the fathers who came before him to find contentment and clarity, and celebrate the struggles and triumphs of being a dad.

Paperback: 242 Pages
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Dream of Things (September 17, 2014)
ASIN: B00NVBMDZ0 / ISBN-10: 0988439093 / ISBN-13: 978-0988439092

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