Guest Post by Norma Watkins
Norma Watkins is the author of the award-winning memoir The Last Resort. She has a Ph.D. in English and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, which she teaches at Mendocino College’s Coast Campus.
I teach creative writing at a small community college. My memoir students often dread writing the truth for fear of offending family and friends. How do we approach the material no one likes to admit: the secrets, lies, and misunderstandings that flow like an underground stream through our lives?
Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club, The Art of Memoir) says she shows her manuscripts to everyone concerned. If I had done that with my memoir, it would still be in the drawer.
There are several ways to handle the hard stuff: you can follow Mary Karr’s example and let everyone have a say; or try my way and ask no one’s approval (Prepare for negative feedback); or, you can turn it into fiction.
I’m enjoying that third alternative. I’m working on a novel now about the three women who died for love of my father. I don’t know enough to make it a memoir, but I know plenty enough to offend. So, it’s a novel. Everyone has different names, and the stuff I don’t know, I guess at, invent, imagine.
Here are a few other suggestions to help you get through the hard stuff:
Ask yourself two questions: Is the story true, and is the story meant to hurt? If your answers are yes and no, cast doubt aside and move on.
There may be conflicting claims on the truth, but this is your truth, the story as you remember and experienced it.
As the narrator, you are a step removed. The thing happened to you, but not to the you who’s doing the writing. As narrator, you stand back: observing, remembering, setting down, revising, cutting away as if life were a piece of marble. With each revision, with each recounting, you remove yourself—the you who cringed, was ashamed and regretted. You gain distance.
We write memoir to answer questions, to find out what really happened and why (In my memoir, The Last Resort). I wanted to know why I felt so afraid during the civil rights troubles, and so trapped in my marriage. We want to understand ourselves and other people in the story. As we answer the questions, we discover more and see more clearly.
Remember, in memoir, as in fiction, no heroes and no villains. Look for the reasons behind bad actions or bad intentions, See without filters people you may once have thought of as gods. Look deeper, understand, and forgive. Create real characters—people we want to read about.
Insert a little humor. Make it funny and you can tell us anything. Laugh at yourself and we laugh with you.
There’s another alternative. The southern writer Ellen Douglas, (which is not her real name—and there’s another solution—change your name) titled her last book: Four Truths I’m Finally Old Enough to Tell. You can wait until they die.
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