Truth in Memoir (who will you hurt?)

An article appeared in the New York Times this summer that cast a disturbing light on truth in memoir–by highlighting the innocents who might be hurt by it. I find myself musing about it this morning.

Dani Shapiro mused in the article titled “The Me My Child Mustn’t Know” on the effect her first published memoir, Slow Motion, might have on her 10-year-old son:

Before I became a mother, I spent many years writing with no thought that some day I might have a child. When I first started the memoir, I hadn’t even yet met the man who would become my husband. And so I wrote with abandon, a kind of take-no-prisoners story about dropping out of college at 20 and, in a booze- and drug-induced haze, becoming involved in a destructive affair with a much older married man, the stepfather of my best friend. My life was turned around by a car accident in which my father was killed and my mother badly injured.

That’s a hell of a truth to write about–a pile-up of facts that resonate with me for my own hellion ways at 20-something. I haven’t published my story–or even written most of it yet. Dani Shapiro has.

The “news hook” of her Times article last summer was the fact of being in the car with her son running errands, NPR on the radio, with a piece featuring her reading from that disturbing memoir scheduled to begin airing momentarily. A piece that, she writes, “I would bodily throw myself in front of my son to prevent him from reading.”

She goes on to ponder how writers must either work selfishly, without fear of their words’ effect on others, or be eternally stifled by an internal editor.

…After all, one can’t write with abandon if one is worrying about the consequences.

From the time my son was an infant, I became aware that he hadn’t asked for a mother who is a writer. Up until then, the people in my life — parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, boyfriends, friends — had felt like fair game. If I was going to be hardest on myself, then, well, they were grown-ups; they could handle it. But if I was going to write about my son, I was going to have to be very, very careful. And as any writer will tell you, careful has no place in making art. My atavistic desire to protect my child (against myself!) was at odds with my creative desire to write from an internal landscape that now included him, one which had been forever altered by his birth.

Memoir is nothing without the promise of truth–it’s fiction and shouldn’t lie about it. Life stories need the truth, especially the bad stuff, to “illuminate the stage on which we live our lives.” (I quote Jill Ker Conway in When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography.What will you do about the stories that might hurt people you love, if you wrote them down?

-Sarah White

p.s. To the person who can find me the source of a quote that goes something like, “All writers should wear bells,” (like cats, to warn prey of their presence)–I’ll send you a free copy of my book.  😉


About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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