“Are your parents still speaking to you?”
This question—a darn good one—comes up pretty much every time I do a Q&A. The short answer is “Yes.” My parents and siblings are all still talking to me; we still get together for holidays and birthdays and no blood gets shed. But this is not the case for other memoirists; I know several who are estranged from their families. Discussing family matters, revealing secrets, shining light on our most vulnerable and tragic moments including bad behavior or naive mistakes, and getting just our version into print, so it sounds like the official word on the subject: If this is what we do when we write memoir, then offending the people in our lives is one of our occupational hazards.
The long answer is that this question is a great opportunity to discuss the distinction between the process of writing a memoir or personal essay and the process of publishing one. When writing, I don’t think about anyone, such as my parents, reading it, because I need to write freely and allow the thoughts, feelings, and images to emerge. Censorship in any form, including self-censorship emanating from a fear of hurting someone, hampers the creative process. But publishing–making this writing public–is a whole other story. When you get to the publishing stage, however, you have some decisions to make about what you are willing to reveal and risk in your life, for the sake of your art. When the memoir manuscript I’d been writing for ten or so years was finally about to become a book, I realized with a shudder that this was serious now, that the characters I’d been writing about were real people, with feelings and lives, that my looseness with words might accidentally hurt someone. So I gave it another close read, ignoring plot problems, repeated phrases, and awkward-sounding sentences to look solely at how I had portrayed the people in my life, especially the ones I wanted to remain in my life. Were there places where I tossed off a flip, and not really accurate, remark for the sake of humor or malice? If so, was the result—a laugh, a cringe—worth the risk of insulting a real person? Sure enough, I found spots here and there throughout the book that felt rude, possibly hurtful, and most of them were not very entertaining or even very true. Many of these spots involved ex-boyfriends, some of whom I still love. Editing out insults turned out to be no sacrifice to the art of the work. What I nipped and tucked did not hurt the veracity of the memoir, and may even have improved it, because I applied an extra layer of empathy. And empathy is so crucial to a good memoir—and to good relationships, and to family Thanksgivings in which everyone comes out alive.
Frances Lefkowitz is the author of TO HAVE NOT, a memoir about growing up poor in 1970s San Francisco which was named one of 5 Best Memoirs of 2010 by SheKnows.com. An award-winning and much published writer of fiction, personal essays, memoir, and flash fiction, Frances is also an editor, writing coach, and writing workshop leader. The former Senior Editor of Body+Soul magazine (aka Martha Stewart’s Whole Living), Frances is the book reviewer for Good Housekeeping and a manuscript reader for a leading literary agency. She blogs about writing, publishing, and footwear at PaperInMyShoe.com.