How Would You Tell the Story of Your Life?

“Even if my memoir is never read by anyone, I’m still glad I wrote it. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.”

My memoir is sitting in the proverbial “drawer,” although in these modern times the drawer is a flash drive. My thesis adviser, who oversaw the entire MS, urged me to get it published, so I spent two years after I finished it trying to find an agent. I disliked the process intensely. It felt too much like job hunting, which I’d been doing without success for three years by then.

There he is: the one and only “Brown Jesus” my mom beat the crap out of.

But even if the chapters of the memoir are never read by anyone, I’m still glad I wrote it. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. For one thing, it was cathartic. At the time I wrote it, I’d spent 10 years in therapy trying to undo the damage from the first eighteen years of my life. We barely scratched the surface.

The memoir forced me to confront memories of traumatic experiences that I’d never fully processed. I was fortunate that my mother and two of my siblings were willing to talk about the things that happened. Getting their version of the stories helped to jog my memory and it helped me to portray the people and events more empathetically. Some of it was painful, certainly. The chapter that made me cry as I wrote it was from the absolute lowest point of my childhood. I wrote it last. That was a strategy I learned from Alice Seibold, who said that she waited until the rest of her memoir was completed before writing the chapter about her brutal rape.

How many of us have happy, smiling photos from the most painful times of our childhood?

The second thing I got from writing the memoir was the understanding that some of the things that I believed when I was young were wrong. I’d misinterpreted or simply ignored the signals that were so obvious to me as an adult. For instance, at the time it happened, I never wondered what my father was doing when I caught him hiding liquor bottles in the basement ceiling. Children want to make sense of the world and will invent reasons for the unexplained. I also saw times in my teen years in which people reached out to me and wanted to be friends but I was too self-absorbed to notice.

By the time I finished the book, I had faced down my demons and gained a better understanding of the world I lived in as a child. It diminished memories that were painful simply because I had remembered or interpreted things wrongly. In the end, the process of writing the memoir gave me a sense of peace and perspective for the first time in my life.

I highly recommend it.

EXERCISE: Good or bad, what is your most vivid memory from your childhood or teen years? Write about it in first person as if you were there. When you look over your story, what does it tell you about yourself? Share your thoughts and excerpts in the comments.

Would You Let Someone Else Write About You?

“In the end, I decided that I could only be as hard on other people as I was on myself.”

When I was writing my memoir, I approached almost every person who was a main character in the book to let them know what I was doing. I asked if there was anything that was off limits. After all, they didn’t ask to be in the book.

Me  at age 19.

Without exception, each of them said, “Write whatever you want.” Even my ex-boyfriends were cool about it. (I didn’t contact all of them, of course. The guy who stalked me until I put him in jail probably wouldn’t have liked what I wrote about him.) I sent the former boyfriends copies of what I’d written and they were incredibly gracious. The only person who objected was one of the wives, who took it upon herself to read the manuscript and email me an unsolicited review: “I think the book is very bizarre!” There also was some stuff about her son being in a very exclusive private school and how she didn’t want my book ruining his precious little life. I wasn’t sure what to write back, or even if I should write back. I compromised by forwarding her email to all of my friends, with the subject line, “What a BITCH!!!”

Finally, I told my mother and father they were in the book. I warned them there were several chapters about the sickness and drinking. (My parents were long in recovery by then.) My mother said, “We were such bad parents, we probably deserve everything you wrote about us.” My father was thrilled about the book and ended up being my biggest fan.

I  was not necessarily unkind to to my parents in the memoir; rather, I was honest. It seemed wrong to sugar coat things. What happened happened and lying about it changed nothing. Still, I didn’t want the story to be one-sided.

In the end, I decided that I could only be as hard on other people as I was on myself. So I looked for opportunities to highlight my flaws. And the weird thing was, I loved doing that. Enough time had passed that I could look at my earlier life dispassionately and see how unbelievably fucked up I was. Given everything that had happened to me growing up, that wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was that considering how well they knew me, my friends and family still trusted me to tell their stories as I saw fit.

EXERCISE: How do you think your friends and family would react if you told them you were writing about them? Would they freak out or would they be flattered? Would they want to collaborate with you on some of the stories? Share your thoughts in the comments.

It’s All about Me

“Some of the things I wrote in my high school diary were so ridiculous, I howled with laughter as I read them. Young idiot me was funny.”

I loved writing my memoir. It gave me an excuse to haul out fourteen years of personal journals. I wrote faithfully every day — sometimes multiple times a day. I was a lonely and troubled soul and the journals were a great comfort to me. They always listened and they were always there for me to read when I needed company — even if the “company” was simply myself.

I was a natural for writing memoir because I was (and still am) my favorite topic. In graduate school, I struggled to discover my “voice” as a writer, when there it was all along in those journals. The young selves of many of my friends were captured in those pages as well.

I loved all of them so much. They were the center of my world and a significant part of my journaling was simply to preserve moments in time with them. Reading my journals from 1979 to 1992 was like having a reunion with those people. When I finished the journals, I sat on the steps and cried because the people on those pages were every bit as wonderful as I remembered them.

The other joy of writing the memoir was turning myself into a character. I loved poking fun at my naive, histrionic teenage self. What a pain in the ass I was! As I was writing the book, I asked my friends and former classmates if they could remember any annoying stuff I did back then. They all said they didn’t remember anything bad. I think they were just being tactful.

Some of the things I wrote were so ridiculous, I howled with laughter as I read them. Young idiot me was funny! The more I made fun of myself, the more enjoyable the writing became.

I’ll leave you with this gem. It’s based on a God-awful poem I wrote after breaking up with my first boyfriend.

Years from now, students will read this poem in their literature books, I tell myself. I imagine my bio in the margin, telling how modern literature’s most sensitive, insightful, heartbreaking poem was inspired by my high school boyfriend dumping me. The bio would give his full name, so readers would know who to blame (and possibly send hate mail to). Beneath the bio would be a picture of me, really old, like in my thirties, but I’d still be totally beautiful. In the end, I’d have realized that breaking up was the best thing that could have happened to me. How else could I have written a world-famous poem that made me the envy of writers everywhere?

I’m not a world-famous writer — yet. It could still happen. But I promise you, that poem will never see the light of day.

Who Am I?

“As a writer, sometimes you have to know who you are not before you can decide who you are.”

When I was in graduate school, my program was creative non-fiction with a focus on memoir. I read lots of memoirs because I wanted to write my own. Of all the memoirs I read, my favorite was The Boys of My Youth by Joann Beard. I loved how everything in her world was alive, from the gravel on the road to the house she grew up in. The descriptions were rich and layered and the tone ranged from wistful to irreverent. When I finished the memoir, I had found my role model. More than anything, I wanted to write like Joann Beard.

As a writer, I felt most comfortable with exposition, but like anyone who has taken creative writing courses, I knew that exposition was BAD. It was boring and lazy, a crutch for hacks and wannabes.  In Joann Beard’s memoir, everything was written as a scene with little to no exposition. The reader was placed immediately into the story, sensing and feeling everything along with the author.

I had already put together a list of stories to include in my memoir. With my Joann Beard-empowered voice, I set out to write the story of my first date. I’d written about the event in detail in my high school diary. I just had to convert my description to a scene.

I don’t remember how long it took me to write it — much longer than it should have. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. When I was finished, the piece was heavy on clever rhetoric, but in no way captured the magic of that day, nor did it represent the voice of a fifteen year old girl. I had face the fact that no matter how hard I tried, I could never be Joann Beard.

It was disappointing but in the end, it was liberating. I went back to my high school diaries and studied them. I’d written the diaries the way I thought and spoke. The voice in the diaries was my voice as a writer. And even though there was a lot of exposition, it was thoughtful and funny and sarcastic.

It was a major turning point in my growth as a writer. I learned that sometimes you have to know who you are not before you can decide who you are. From that day forward I have have written with full commitment to my own process. In the end, it doesn’t matter what your style is as long as your reader is engaged.

EXERCISE: If you had to describe your authentic self, the one you keep tucked away for fear of judgment, who would you say that person it?  What are his or her secret thoughts? What drives those thoughts? Now write something as that person. Hold nothing back. When you read what you wrote, what have you learned about yourself? Share your revelations below, or share a bit of what you wrote.