What Every Memoir Writer Must Eventually Decide

Various black and white photographs in pile on table
Various black and white photographs in pile on table

One of the unique features of humanity is our desire to be part of a community of storytellers and listeners. I have a simple explanation for why I can conclude this with confidence--if stories were not so important in our interaction with each other, why would we spend so much time talking?

Our stories compiled, threaded and intertwined compose memoir, the genre of the century, someone braver than I has said.

Memoir is a privilege.

Memoir writing is a service to self.

Privileges and self-actualization come at a cost. But fortunately, in the case of memoir writing, the charge is one that you will pay, while out of sight and in private. The sensitivity to both authentic storytelling and being vulnerable on the page in the interest of relating to your reader will naturally bring you to the issue of what right you have to include another person's story. At some stage of writing...you will ask this question, every memoir write must eventually wrestle this one to the proverbial ground.

When we put ourselves out there on the page, we have a heightened sensitivity to privacy, both our own and that of others. So, whether you reveal your sister's teenage secrets, or your neighbor's secret passion for collecting creepy bugs, at some point you will wonder if it is really okay for you to write it.

My coaching clients worry about whether they should include some story that intersects with their own in their book. One memoirist, who recently published her story about her unique convictions while raising children who would ultimately all succumb to their life-threatening illness, was asked if she was nervous about how her ex-husband would feel about being included in the book. No, she was not, she replied. She told the truth as she knew it, was her primary reasoning, and she used loving language that acknowledged how people act in a myriad of ways when processing grief. In writing my latest manuscript, I worry about my family's story; my sense of alienation in my childhood is related in my mind to something they didn't do. But I conclude that if I tell my version of my story in my life as truthfully as I can... it is mine to tell.

Other people enter scenes from our stage left, and their interaction with us does influence how the play ends. But we are at the center of the drama that is our life, and we are the voice of our memoir. I fully advocate for the role of reviewing, beta reading, editing, coaching and mentoring here. As memoir writers, and writers of any kind we do have a responsibility to choose our language well, and to massage the text until the scene we write is as honest and fair as we can make it. I certainly address the issue of Whose Story Is It? in my memoir coaching work on a daily basis.

You want to write about your life? Anticipate having to make some choices about what you include and how you delicately address the tales that weave around the lives of others. But write your story. Too many of us closet ourselves behind the what-if's in too many facets of our lives. Surely one of the stellar benefits of memoir rising to the surface in the book world is an understanding that we get to write whatever the heck we want, when it's our name on the cover, the journal or the other side of the phone bill where we scribbled a list of memories.

The world is waiting to hear your story and the most confident way to get it out there is to make writing a team sport. Find your team. Pick your writing tribe. Ask readers to comment. Hire a coach like me, or find an editor with a keen sensitivity to your concern. But decide that whatever makes it into the story is your right to tell.

Let the worries rise and subside, and write your memoir anyway.