“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
– Anne Lamott
It’s funny how guilt emerges when you tell the truth. Why does telling the truth feel like a betrayal? Because on some level, it is. You are betraying a lie that was passed down to you by your ancestors. The lie is this: keep the secrets and you will be safe, don’t feel and everything will be okay, pretend it didn’t happen, and it will go away.
Except it doesn’t go away. It gets louder.
Your truth is shrieking inside you, and despite your best efforts to quiet it, there’s something demanding to be heard.
If all art is subversive to some degree, then memoir is even more so. There is a dissonance that doesn’t ever seem to go away, because the desire to write is the desire to evolve, to resolve something we seek to understand. We want wholeness, freedom. We want to know ourselves in some simple, fundamental way before they put us in the ground. But as we begin to explore, we sense that our truth may hurt other people’s feelings.
In writing memoir, often the first hurdle is guilt. Are you being disloyal? Yes, probably. But your disloyalty is to something that wasn’t working properly to begin with. If it was, there would be no story to write about! The irony is that when you give yourself permission to tell the truth, or even just to admit it to yourself, you begin to see what you have been denying — and this new narrative often includes, strangely, a compassion for yourself and others.
The truth sets all of us free. It might be uncomfortable, and others may not like it, but that is because change is uncomfortable.
This, in no way, lets them off the hook for what happened, but we begin to see that it wasn’t personal, and we are able to forgive ourselves, and to understand them, and to begin to develop a healthy distance from the event. As a storyteller, this is essential, because without it, you will have little objectivity, and without objectivity, the meaning of the events will be lost on your reader.
Your goal as a storyteller is to make the personal universal. Giving a simple recounting of events without imbuing it with meaning will leave your reader confused.
Consider a scene: Sally comes home and tells Bill that after twenty years she wants a divorce. Bill quits his job and buys a ticket to Paris. When he arrives, he rents a car and drives to the carrot farm that he last visited with his father when he was eight. The owner of the farm emerges from his front door, sees the man and rushes to him. They embrace and both men break down in tears.
Okay, I just told you exactly what happened, but I failed to imbue it with meaning. Be aware that your reader is always asking “Why?” Keep answering why and you will keep us connected to the story.
Let’s try it like this: Sally comes home and tells Bill that after twenty years of marriage he is still a stranger to her. Bill is so blindsided by this news that he quits his job and sets out on a pilgrimage to a carrot farm in Normandy, to the last place he saw his father alive when he was eight years old. Upon arriving, the farmer recognizes the man and rushes out of his house, still haunted by his inability to resuscitate the boy’s father who had a heart attack in his carrot field while the child watched in horror. The farmer embraces Bill, and they weep together, comforting each other.
Remember, it is not what happens, but the meaning we ascribe to it. While you are writing, always have your ideal reader close by, asking “Why?” In this way, you will make your personal experience universally relatable.