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 a memoir of “his bad childhood.” Three agents want it.
I know my husband and I did our very best. As I write my book, I am thinking about my own mother and how she will feel.
My son doesn’t want me to read his book, though he intends to verify things with me as he gets his proposal ready. As a writer, I am excited for him and I wish him every success. But now I find myself in the middle and not sure how to process this. I wonder if he’s exaggerating or being influenced in what he remembers. Then I wonder about my own memory and the recollections I have about my own childhood. As a writer who’s also being written about, how do I process this in a healthy way?
Never saw this coming…
Dear Never Saw This Coming,
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should‘ve behaved better.” How easy it is to be cavalier with this statement when we hold the pen. Yet, when others hold the pen, we shudder.
You cannot control what your son writes. Nor should you. The process of writing a memoir is the process of voicing our subjective truths. We do this to integrate the experiences that don’t make sense to us. In the process of writing and revising, we discover our wholeness. To apply your version of the truth to his story would stifle his growth. I can see from your letter that you already know this.
But how do you hold onto your own truth as a writer? And how do you find ways to be okay no matter what he writes? Those are the real questions I need to answer.
Nigerian Novelist Chinua Achebe says, “If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.”
My first bit of advice: stick close to your own story. Ask yourself how you wish to be treated during the writing process. What space do you crave? What freedoms do you need? What messages would you like to receive from the characters in your book? The more you honor your autonomy, the more you will be able to give this to your son. You will see that a truthful examination of your life changes you for the better. And, while you may not like everything your son writes, you might find that the peace you both feel at the end of this process is worth it.
The phrases “bad childhood” and “being influenced in what he remembers” stood out to me when I read your letter. These phrases suggest this process scares you.
In her blog post “Do I Have the Right to Tell Your Story,” Laura Cathcart Robbins shares the fears she had about publishing one of her articles. She writes “When I got divorced ten years ago, I made up my mind to stop making decisions based on fear. Usually fear of losing something that I had or fear of not getting something that I wanted. If I remove the fear from this decision, then what is my answer?” While her context differs, this question also applies to you. If you removed the fear from this situation, how would you respond? How would you treat your son? How would you treat yourself?
To rid yourself of fear, find your center. Write affirmations about your strengths. Remind yourself that you did your best. If you owe your son amends for past wrongs, make them when the time is right. Just be sure that you do so from a place of sincerity and not as a way to manipulate your son’s impression of you. Spend lots of time in the present moment and express gratitude for all that is going well. Work to better understand yourself and your characters. Tell the best damn story you can.
Think of the hard work you’re doing to both own your story and understand its complexities. It’s likely your son is working just as hard. While it’s not always easy to hear, the truth heals us. Hold space for the possibility that his story is not as bad as you think. In fact, seeing each other’s truths could be the very best thing that happens to your family.
But don’t give away your power.
It is perfectly fine to set boundaries with your son as he goes on this journey. Make a list of things that scare you about this process. Talk back to those fears then decide the best course of action. Maybe you’re worried about your reputation or that your son will tarnish your memories of his childhood. Maybe you fear he will reveal that secret you don’t want to relive. While you cannot control what your son writes, you have control of yourself. You can request that he change your name and identifying features. You can choose the level of participation you have in this process. You can decide not to read his book.
While it’s always helpful to verify key details, if you know this might lead to controlling behaviors, step away. There are two ways to gauge your tolerance for this work. First, ask yourself how much contact you would like to have with your own mother during the drafting process. Second, consider whether others have accused you of being controlling or stepping over the line. Do you see this as a tendency? Accept your nature and pull back as much as you need to in order to feel good about this process and your relationship with your son.
Keep in mind that while you might have felt alone during childhood, you do not have to navigate this alone. Consider whether a therapist or groups like Al-anon and Codependent Anonymous could offer support. Whatever you do, find ways to keep the focus on yourself and not on what your son is doing. The very best way to do this is to keep writing your book.
Stay true to your story and let him have his. I wish you both the best as you work to finish your books.
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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.