Dear Lisa, I am writing a memoir about growing up feeling unloved and unwanted by my mother. My oldest son is a writer too. Originally, his MFA thesis was a fictional piece about a group of churches we encountered. Recently, he changed genres and presented his work as...
Lisa, I’ve been told it takes an average of ten years to write a memoir. If this is true, I’m right on track—maybe. Let me explain. Ten years ago, with my new husband’s encouragement, I read his deceased daughter’s journals. Reading about this dead girl I’d never met,...
Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 3: Mining the Gap Between Traumatic Memories and Your Memoir
Revisiting traumatic memories can amp up the nervous system or take us out of our bodies. Mindfulness meditation is an excellent self-care practice that strengthens the parasympathetic nervous system (the part that calms you down). Mindfulness can return your focus to the body and the visceral details you’re looking for while also helping you gauge whether activities are productive or distressing. If you haven’t already done so, begin a mindfulness practice.
Dear Lisa, I began a memoir project with my dad four years ago. It's been an incredibly healing process to write together about his alcoholism and how it affected our family, as well as how his commitment to sobriety changed everything for the better. There are...
Dear Lisa, They say: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I am living proof of that statement. My life has mirrored a journey through a magical wardrobe into Narnia, where I got lost in winter garments, accidentally stumbled upon a yellow brick road into Oz, got...
My memoir is about growing up in a family where the default position in any dispute was to totally cut that relative from our lives. It resulted in me growing up in a bubble with no extended family. As a child this seemed quite normal, but as I grew up, I began to realise how dysfunctional and destructive this behaviour was.
After the death of my parents, I took a leap of faith and reconnected with a number of relatives I had never met. This shed light on an otherwise dark past and brought much happiness to my life.
It has also led to a conflict. I believe my experiences are not unique and hope telling my story will help others feel less alone. I want to write the truth, but I don’t want to hurt my fragile extended family. How do I write my memoir without hurting the people I love?
Dear Fragile Family,
Your letter contains two questions: Should I write this memoir, and should I publish it?
The answer to your first question is a resounding yes. As Joan Didion says, we write to understand ourselves. If this family pattern is still bothering you, it’s worth understanding. The writing process might shed additional light on your family situation and increase your compassion for them. Over time, the story you’ve always told might evolve. There’s only one way to find out: write it down.
In her Tin House podcast “How to Write a Kickass Essay,” memoirist Ann Hood says we should write like an orphan, especially for the first few drafts. Don’t tell anyone outside your writing group about this project, and definitely don’t show it to anyone else. As you write like an orphan, consider what else you need to tread through this forbidden territory. What messages do you need to counter? What family rules do you need to break? Who can cheer you on and offer support?
The answer to second question—should I publish—is largely personal. While I can’t answer this for you, I can share some exercises that might help you make the decision that’s right for you.
Step one: Write your story without an eye toward publishing. Write until the story makes sense to you. Request feedback from critique partners. Write some more. Once you’ve figured out what your story is actually about and how to frame it move on to step two.
Step Two: Revise Toward Compassion. All memoirs reconcile the unintegrated stories in our lives. To truly reconcile, forgiveness is required. This doesn’t mean excusing bad behavior or reconnecting with bad actors. It does mean unearthing and examining the layers in your story and creating truer, more complex human characters. If done properly, readers will see that while you may not know the causes of someone’s behavior, you understand that nothing happens in a vacuum. While it might seem like this step is about other characters, forgiveness is an act of self-empowerment.
Step Three: Evaluate the Pros and Cons of Publishing. Once your manuscript is ready, make a list of potential rewards and losses you might experience. Upon creating this list, some people decide not to publicly share their stories. For others, the mission behind their words is more important. What matters to you?
Step Four: Circle the Wagons. Essayist Meghan Daum says that if you’re not willing to write something someone might hate; you’re not writing something someone can love. If your work is honest and open-hearted, it will not please everyone. Nor should it. In the event of fallout, surround yourself with loving support.
But also know that some families hunger for their stories to be told. In Krystal Sital’s memoir Secrets We Kept, Krystal writes about the joy her grandmother expressed when asked about her experiences. Krystal writes, “no one has ever asked her before. This is the release she’s been yearning for.”
Some books reauthor family narratives.
In her memoir I Am Yours, Reema Zaman writes about the tumultuous relationship she had with her father and how he dismissed her early writings. As father and daughter come to understand one another, Reema’s father admits to fearing the ferocity of her fire and mourning the loss of the little girl who asked him questions. They choose to forge a new relationship that’s stronger than either could have imagined.
But let’s be realistic. Not all stories have happy endings. When Lara Lillibridge was working on Girlish, she shared the galleys with her brother and sister but not her mothers, fearing they would pressure her to make changes. Lillibridge says, “It pretty much decimated my relationship with them, though not necessarily in the way one might expect. I was as upset with my moms over their reaction to the book as they were with me for writing it. We didn’t speak for many months, but now we’re slowly rebuilding our relationship.”
I am still writing my memoir, yet I’ve already experienced the complexities of publication. In 2015, I published an article in The Guardian about my brother Joe’s suicide. It led to an interview on NPR’s With Good Reason. While I told my father about the article and NPR interview, I foolishly and arrogantly didn’t tell Joe’s twin. Somehow, I believed he wouldn’t find out because we lived in separate towns. The story was syndicated. My brother heard it while driving through our hometown. He was furious, and rightly so. We haven’t spoken since.
I would not go back and change one word of that article or interview, nor would I seek my brother’s input, but I would tell him about these publications and what I hoped to accomplish.
Despite this sad turn of events, these publications healed my relationship with my father. I left home at seventeen during a tumultuous time in our family. The events are outlined in my book but suffice it to say a crisis occurred that led me to ask the school for a voluntary foster care placement. Throughout my childhood, my father had done his best to provide for us kids despite job losses, functional homelessness, and severe depression. When I left home, it broke his heart. We didn’t speak for several years, and while we eventually reunited, that period remained an unspoken tension between us. After listening to my NPR story, we talked about that terrible time. At the end of the conversation, he patted my leg and said, “You did the right thing. I’m proud of you.”
As you decide whether or not to publish, I hope you hold as much space for the potential good your book can accomplish as you do for any possible harm. But that’s all down the road. First, write. Write for yourself. Write to heal. Write to eradicate these old family patterns. I’m cheering you on.
Have a memoir question of your own? Contribute to the Heart Speak column.
Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health and a background in mindfulness meditation. She teaches experiential workshops on The Art of Forgiveness and The Gifts of Grief as well as classes in memoir and creative nonfiction through WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Lisa is passionate about fostering authors’ creativity. Whether she’s working one-on-one or with a class, Lisa uses her knowledge of craft and love of human relationships to empower writers as they approach the page. Clients and students have commented that Lisa’s insights as well as her compassion and heartfelt encouragement have helped them achieve creative breakthroughs and complete their projects. Learn what writers have to say about working with Lisa.