Friday, March 2, 2012

Consequences of memoir writing

When I teach workshops on writing your stories (whether for publication or for circulation to friends and family), people invariably ask about how you write about others, particularly others who are still alive. Few of us have stories about our lives that don't involve other people, not very many anyway.

I always say that we keep the focus on our own truth, our own experience, much as counselors suggest we use "I" statements when we are in dialog with others about bothersome behaviors. "I feel, I respond, I become" keeps the focus off of accusation and on response. So in a sense, a memoir is one giant "I" statement. On the other hand, people do do us wrong. They hurt us, and sometimes intentionally. Parents neglect us or abuse us or abandon us. Teachers and classmates and school friends devastate us with words or actions. Lovers leave us or hit us or cheat on us. And these become major parts of our stories.

We don't worry about their feelings or their response when we draft our stories. We just get them down and work on them and polish them. Then if we decide to publish them, we change the identifying information so that others who don't already know the person won't recognize him or her. After all it's our story we're telling, not theirs.

But the person in question may read what we've written and respond in a way that is painful. That happened to me last weekend. A man I was involved with 35 years ago read my memoir and wrote 5 single-spaced pages of response. It was both painful and fascinating to see how his memories differed from mine in all kinds of ways. He wanted me to tell much more of his story (which I found arrogant) and wanted me to tell much less of mine. It was a long epistle of justification of his bad behavior and recitation of the details of mine.

I knew when I published it that if he read it, he wouldn't like it. And he didn't. And he let me know that. And that's his right. But we still have a right to tell our stories. We have a right to learn what we can from writing them and help others learn about themselves from sharing them.

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