I just read a memoir that left me with my mouth hanging open. I almost quit reading because of all the talk about sex, drugs and other stuff. Even if I’d lived through anything like that, I could never write about it. Is that what it takes to write a memoir?
This are typical questions about self-disclosure that I’m asked as a lifewriting coach and teacher. The simple answer is NO. If a subject gives you pause, respect that feeling. Don’t leave your comfort zone without good reason. The healthy thing to do is to write those stories in full detail. Spill your guts on the page, but keep it private at first. This will give you the health benefits of writing without the counter-acting stress of confrontations.
Once those stories are written, you have many options. You can burn the pages, or decide to delay sharing them. Depending on your relative ages, you may wait until those key players die to publish your work. But if you’re young and they aren’t old, another solution may be better. Here are a few considerations:
Look at the situation from other perspectives. You’ve probably only been thinking of this experience from your own point of view. Perhaps it looks quite different from the other person’s or the reader’s. Try experimenting by writing what you think the other person would say about it. You may find that it looks quite different, and your story may change as a result. This experiment may have additional value. In a recent IAJW member teleseminar James Pennebaker again emphasized that subjects in his research who adopted the most diverse points of view in their writing demonstrated the strongest health benefits.
Question your assumptions. Perhaps you overestimate the power of other people’s reactions. Perhaps some of your assumptions about what actually happened are a bit off-base. The techniques Byron Katie developed in The Work provide a simple process for challenging assumptions and beliefs.
Consider the value for readers. After reading several memoirs that were candid about the pain of feeling different during childhood, I’ve come to realize this is a much more common situation than I’d ever imagined, and I would not know that if those authors had not been brave enough to share their experience. As a result, I feel more comfortable openly joining their “club.”
Realize that reader attitudes are changing. Who doesn’t know that a vast sea of change has taken place over the course of a generation. My daughter’s generation could shock the socks off my mother’s with ordinary conversations among friends. They are more candid about nearly everything, and write accordingly. Even among those who are old enough to remember living conditions during World War II, many are disclosing things they would not have dreamed of telling fifty years ago.
Be compassionate with yourself. If you decide to admit to shortcomings or transgressions of various sorts, don’t just toss them out there and duck for cover. Include enough reflection to let the reader know what lessons you learned. Extend the same compassion and understanding to yourself that you would to a grandchild or any younger person who was feeling fears, pressures to conform, or general lack of insight similar to you experienced.
Never include anything simply for shock value. If, for example, your story involves sexual experiences, it’s okay to close the doors for privacy after the reader knows what’s going on behind them. Include only those details necessary to serve the purpose and move the story along.
These considerations barely brush the surface of this deep topic. For what promises to be a thought-provoking discussion about the issue of self-disclosure, sign up for the free NAMW telesummit on Friday, October 21 and dial in for the fourth session: Young Memoirists Talk about Truth, featuring Elisabeth Eaves, Nicole Johns, and Anna Mitchael. Everyone who signs up will receive an email link to listen to replays if you can’t dial in live.
Write now: think of a story you are afraid to share and work through the considerations above. You may still not want to share it, but I guarantee you’ll see the situation somewhat differently as a result.
Photo Credit: Wesley Oostvogels