To Say the Secret Things: Tips for Memoirists
I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of swapping stories with a group of friends, maybe out on the patio on a summer’s evening, or back in the pre-pandemic days at a dinner party. Someone starts to tell a story and then hesitates and says something like, “I really shouldn’t be telling you this.” Maybe the teller has even been you. You start the story and then you realize it’s going to be embarrassing, or it’s going to paint you in a bad light, or you’re going to wonder what people will think. The self-censoring kicks in, and you stop, afraid to go any further. Only by this time, your friends are interested. You’ve aroused their curiosity, and they say to you, “Well, you’ve got to tell it now. You’ve gone too far to stop.”
Those of us who write memoir experience this all the time. More often than not, we deal with sensitive material, and if we’re doing it properly, we have to look as truthfully at ourselves as we do others. Often those others include family members and family secrets, ones we’re not sure we want to share. By the time that hesitancy arises, though, we’re usually in the midst of the writing. We’ve gone too far to stop. We want to push on into the difficult material, but we’re afraid of the potential real-life consequences that might occur. We’re also afraid of what readers will think of us when we share our secrets and our shortcomings. We want to tell, and at the same time we want to stay silent. This can lead to a paralysis of our writing process as we struggle to figure out how to say the secret things.
Here, then, are three strategies for how to overcome this paralysis and trick ourselves into saying what we hesitate to say.
- Change the POV: The upright pronoun, “I,” is often a terrifying position from which to speak. It demands you claim the experience you’re describing as your own. Saying, “I embarrassed the unpopular girl who’d worked up the courage to lay a note on my desk by knocking it to the floor,” is very different from saying, “You embarrass the unpopular girl who’d worked up the courage to lay a note on your desk by knocking it to the floor.” Or “He knocked the note to the floor.” Shifting the point of view to the second or the third person often eases the personal stakes for the writer and invites a more candid portrait.
- Change the Camera Angle: Often we can trick ourselves into writing about sensitive material by changing the perspective. Instead of doing a scene from your own perspective, why not try imagining the scene as viewed by someone else? Maybe from the imagined perspective of a stranger observing the scene. “What would anyone think if they happened to see me bathing my handless father?” Or, “If anyone would have seen us there, they might have thought they were observing a scene of tenderness when really a deep-seated anger simmered between my father and me.” This shift of the camera can often invite us to tell the things we’d rather not tell. We can even try to imagine a sensitive scene from the perspective of another person involved in the experience. “What must it have been like for my father to stand naked in front of me? Maybe he was thinking of my mother. Maybe he was missing her. Maybe he feared what the rest of his life would be like if he happened to lose her.”
- Change the Mode: Writing memoir is often a mode of confession, one in which writers willingly open their lives to readers. Changing that mode to one of resistance can often lead to a covert confession. What if you approach sensitive material by saying, “I don’t want to tell you. . . .” Write down everything you want to keep hidden. Put it all on the page. Hold nothing back. Once you’re finished, you might find that writing it took away the power it held over you. Saying it all might give you the distance you need to shape the scene in a way that will invite your readers to be your fellow-travelers through what once terrified you.
Writing memoir is an act of discovery. We know more at the end than we did at the beginning. We come to understandings we weren’t capable of having when we were in the midst of the lives we were living. We write memoir to come to the point where the sensitive material loosens its grip on us. We control it by saying it. I hope this post will give you some strategies to do just that. We write memoir to be able to move on into our futures. We can’t do that unless we make ourselves say the difficult things.
This is so helpful and reassuring. There are so many players in my story and I often imagine if they interpret situations the same way I did. I do I overthink things at times. However, there is a sense of relief when I am comfortable with what I truly believe is factual. Ultimately overcoming that fear is cathartic and liberating.
Thanks for your comment, Doug! Overcoming that fear is indeed liberating. Remember what Tobias Wolff says: “Memory has its own story to tell.”
Strong advice. Thanks, Lee. I am going to share this with my memoir class!
Thanks, Richard. I hope you’re doing well.
This is helpful to consider a shift in perspective or from another’s vantage point; something I had not considered.
I’m glad this post was helpful. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to comment.