Jeannette Winterson, author of the novel Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit, and a memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal talks about the merging of “truth” and fiction early in her memoir: “To avoid the narrow mesh of Mrs. Winterson’s story, I had to be able to tell my own. Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story. I wrote my way out.”
According to Jeannette, Oranges is the story she could write at the time–“a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.”
When I work with memoir writers, they too worry about how much of their story they can/should tell, what to leave in and what to leave out. What about the story that is too painful to write. What about the story that will get the relatives and friends up in arms, angry or hurt. Of course, what we choose to leave out alters the literal “truth,” and what we include shapes the “truth” that we claim as our own, so we have to allow several drafts and several layers of the writing to emerge step by step. It’s no simple thing to gather words together into sentences that have meaning and power and share them with the world. Finding our truths is a process. It requires us to encounter ourselves on paper. We may need space and silence and shake hands with confusion as we allow the words to come.
What kind of person can sit around and muse, allow the silence. Dream about writing. We’ve all heard all the clichés about memoirists being “narcissistic and navel gazing.” You do have to be a contemplative person to self-examine and be willing to look within and listen to what bubbles up. I think memoir writers shouldn’t shy away from the “navel gazing” label. We need to grab it and claim it. We need to redefine it as being on a search for meaning. We can be proud of being willing to investigate the nature of being a human person—that is the path we are all on—a journey through life.
From Jeannette again: “When we write, we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.”
Think about your silences. What are you leaving out that you could explore and expand? Are you willing to take some risks with your writing? Writing a memoir invites you to spill out things you never thought you would write or say or share. Don’t censor. Don’t say, “I can’t write this because person x and y will read it.” No one else is reading your first draft. No one will read your 10th draft either. You are simply writing and you’ll be writing a long time before it’s time to share your story with family. Along the way, carefully choose with whom you share your writing. Find a safe and understanding memoir group who is on the same path as you are, and be sure they are supportive, not only of what is written, but of your deeply emotional process of writing. That means they can offer feedback, but no character assassination. Make boundaries about what you want to know from your group.
It is a natural thing for memoir to inspire self-knowledge. Write to investigate what you think and feel, who you were and are becoming. If you hold back, you don’t get to make new discoveries—which are useful for us, but are also important for readers who will eventually feel the energy of your discovery. If you are discovering new things as you write, readers will become curious and investigative too—about themselves and their own lives. Readers will take in what you have learned and try it on for size. Writing and books change lives—for the better. It’s a way to be in community—writing and sharing stories that illuminate our path.
Give your memoir and yourself time to grow and develop, which does not mean ignoring it or procrastinating. A lot of thinking, dreaming, doodling, and research go into writing your story. Sit down with your material regularly—daily if possible. If you wait too long between writing sessions, you lose the thread of your thoughts and insights. Read what you have written, take notes, and keep a journal by your bed. Be awake and alert to the richness of the silences you carry. Feel into the story that is whispering and trying to emerge.
Writing a memoir is like being an investigative reporter—you and your life and insights and feelings are the subjects. You’re investigating what you couldn’t find words for before, areas where there was a “keep out” sign.
Jeanette again: “I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.”
Part of that self-forgiveness is allowing yourself to think on paper, to write and to listen to yourself. It’s like opening a door that has been barred. You open it with curiosity and bravely step through.