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Memoir Advice from Dani Shapiro: How Best to Reveal Ugly Truths About Your Family

Dear Dani,

I’m working on a memoir, which involves revealing unpalatable truths about my family. My concern about their reactions when they finally read the book is inhibiting my writing. What should I do?

When I wrote my memoir SLOW MOTION, the only way I was able to do it was to tell myself that I could always change my mind — I could write the whole book and then scrap it. Never mind that my book contract was my sole source of income. Never mind that my deadline loomed. Wearing a very useful pair of blinders, I wrote the painful story of my religious childhood, my family dysfunction, the death of my father and near-loss of my mother in a car accident. I wrote about aunts and uncles and cousins. I wrote about my half-sister. I wrote about my married sociopathic ex-boyfriend. All the while, telling myself a helpful white lie: I can always change my mind. This lie served me well. It allowed me to write without wondering what people would think.

No family is ever happy to discover that a writer is in their midst. Even in the happiest families (which don’t tend to produce many memoirs) there still exists a feeling of being exposed. Of one person telling her own version of the story. In my case, I was most afraid of my mother’s response. I didn’t want to hurt her, but was aware that in order to tell my story, I had to tell a portion of hers as well. When I finished a draft, I gave the manuscript to a writer friend for a “mother read”. I wasn’t looking for literary criticism, or a line-edit. I gave it to this particular friend because she was a mother herself, and I thought she’d zero in on moments or descriptions that might sting. She found a few gratuitous zingers, and I cut them. Then I gave the galley to my mother. She wasn’t exactly pleased. I mean, what did I expect? In a way, I had stolen her story by telling my own.

It’s an instructive thing, I think, for writers to realize that the things they think will most offend family or friends usually slides by, unnoticed… while the smallest, most innocuous details end up causing distress. It’s impossible to know what will be insulting or overly-exposing and what won’t. Worrying about it — especially when writing a first draft — is counter-productive, and devastating to the creative process. I don’t say this in order to let memoirists off the hook. It’s just the way it is.

A writer worried about exposing unsavory aspects of her family might simply consider asking herself the following questions: Is it revenge I’m after? Am I trying to settle a score? Do I want to prove something? Is there someone in particular who I hope will read this and weep? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it would be reasonable to question one’s own motives. But if the act of writing memoir is one of remembering, of telling a story, I think the best we can do is tell our stories as truthfully as we can. There’s a ruthlessness in the very act of writing. Within the context of that ruthlessness, it’s still possible to be discerning and careful.

Today’s Wordbird: POLTERGUY

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