I’ve had a request to do a blog post about how to treat others fairly when writing memoir. It’s a challenge we all come up against, especially when we write about people who may have hurt us in various ways. Often these people are family members, and sometimes they’re still alive and our relationships with them might suffer the consequences of the fact that we wrote about them. We want to tell our stories in their entirety, but we also want to be fair to those who don’t volunteer to be in our memoirs. Here, then, are some tips to help us do the writing we have to do in a way that will be fair to ourselves and to the other people we turn into characters on the page.

1. We have to accept the fact that we all have a story to tell, and that story belongs to us. We have a right to tell it. Often we have no choice but to tell it. Writing about our life experiences can save us. Consider anyone who would decline you that right. How much do they really love you?

2. We have to proceed with honesty and fairness. We have to look at the characters in our memoirs, including our own, from as many angles as possible. We have to consider our own flaws just as we examine the shortcomings of others. We can’t indict them without indicting ourselves. We can’t love them without also loving ourselves.

3. We have to understand what we’re trying to understand. What’s the reason for writing? To document our experiences, perhaps, but also to make meaning from then, and in the process, to better understand how certain things came to be. We tell our stories to make them known, not only to other people but also to ourselves. If we aren’t changed somehow by the writing of a memoir, we’ve not really used the writing to think more deeply about our experiences.

4. We have to dramatize the ugly, but we also have to look for the beautiful. Otherwise, we’re writing only for revenge. We’re not looking carefully at our experiences. We’re not recognizing the complicated layers that make them what they are. The goal of memoir is understanding. To understand, we have to see fully. That means we have to acknowledge the moments of goodness and beauty that stand in contrast to the moments of trouble and ugliness.

5. We have to understand the sources of someone else’s bad behavior. We have to practice the art of empathy. We have to put ourselves inside other people’s skin to see if we can discover why they are who they are. We have to practice this same art of empathy with ourselves. This isn’t to say that we have to forgive, though often this is the result. It’s more to say that we have to come to a deeper knowledge of why people do the things they do. Without that, we’re striking one note when it comes to our portrayal of others and ourselves. We’ve decided what our story is about and the role that each character plays in it. We’ve closed off discovery, and that’s a death knell for a memoir. We have to write from a desire to know. We have to be open to the leaps in character and situation that can reveal to us things we couldn’t know when we were in the midst of the experience itself.

So here’s a brief writing exercise to help us practice some of the principles I’ve expressed above. Choose someone from your past with whom you had a difficult relationship. Find a photograph of the person as a child. What does the photograph tell you about them that you never knew? How does it help you think about the experiences your shared? Likewise, try to remember the adult in a moment of vulnerability. The angry father who one day suddenly needed your help. The difficult mother who one day told you something sad from her own childhood. Whatever the case might be, try to find those moments when your heart went out to these people, when you were surprised by what they made you feel.

These are only a few ways of helping you treat the characters in your memoirs with honesty and fairness. Keep in mind what Patricia Hampl once said about the memoir never being about the past, but instead about the future. We write about our past experiences so we can understand them better and so we can be released from them. We can move on into our future lives without the baggage from our pasts.

8 Comments

  1. Ed O'Casey on March 6, 2017 at 8:27 am

    I’m bringing this to my creative writing class tomorrow. We’ve been discussing how to treat memoir, and this provides a perspective that most undergraduates don’t have access to sadly.

    Thanks again, Lee. I hope they’re ready for it!

    • Lee Martin on March 14, 2017 at 1:47 pm

      Ed, I hope your students found my comments useful. Many Thanks.

  2. Roy Bentley on March 6, 2017 at 9:03 am

    Brilliant stuff. One of the component parts of seeing is being unflinching in our willingness to say what the world is. Vision, for me, is rooted in a respect for what is rooted in accurate details and their presentation. And fairness is a part of it, part of seeing clearly, accurately, but writing about your life is one element of free speech, is it not?

    I’ve dealt with this from the first instances of publication I shared with family members–who, then, immediately, complained not about the “exposure” of family secrets but about my having gotten the make, model, and year of a car wrong!

    Telling the truth is a skill, for sure. A discipline whose practice can answer the need to share our version of events. Thanks, Lee.

    • Lee Martin on March 6, 2017 at 3:18 pm

      Roy, Miller Williams used to say to pay attention to the furniture of the world–in other words the particulars. As you know, the truth always resides there.

  3. Denise Wilkinson on March 6, 2017 at 9:43 am

    I love this writing exercise. It would be interesting to do it for myself too.

    • Lee Martin on March 6, 2017 at 3:19 pm

      Thanks, Denise.

  4. BE on March 9, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    “Furniture of the world…” brought me immediately to a memory I had recalled long ago about my mother polishing pothos leaves in her houseplants. Thinking about how I would describe this, I realized the leaves were not always lovingly polished or given attention. Sadness around this memory lifted my recollection to a new level.

    • Lee Martin on March 13, 2017 at 9:11 am

      Thanks so much. Isn’t it amazing how the memory of what might appear to be a small detail can open the door to something larger. good luck with your work!

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