Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How Do You Talk about Others in Your Memoir?

It's ticklish: I'm writing my memoir, and I realized early on that I was going to have to decide how to talk about other people (and institutions) in my life. Here's how I made my decisions.

  • First, I clarified my purpose. If my memoir was to be a tell-all book (an exposé) or vehicle for settling scores, I was going to need a team of lawyers in my corner. Fortunately, my purpose was to explain my long transition from one of the world's great religions to another. The memoir essentially was to be about me, not about others.
  • Second, I had to address the memory problem. Unlike some memoir writers, I have no lifetime of diaries or journals to work from. I have to go by my memory, which is flawed at best. I didn't know how flawed until I got a package of photos from my sister. Until then, I had the "memory" that my parents never threw me a birthday party. In the package of photos was photo after photo of me, at various ages, in front of friends and a birthday cake, blowing out candles. It was my sister, a year younger than I, who didn't get much in the way of birthday celebrations. Memory is about the present--one's resentments, one's values, one's vision of oneself--as it is about the past. I would need to be very careful about what I said about others and I would need a disclaimer about this memory thing. .
  • Third, I looked at my values. One set of my values had to do with a 12-step program that puts considerable emphasis on protecting the anonymity of others, focusing on one's own issues instead of others', and behaving in such a way that you don't injure them, even out of good will. This intensified my conviction that I had to focus on my own behavior, that I should not identify others by their real names, and that I needed to be careful about what I said about anyone. While these rules applied to most people and institutions, I made some exceptions. One was to name the institutions or organizations that appeared on my resume. This seemed reasonable. Another was to name my family, which also seemed reasonable (as long as applied the other principles). Finally, the other exception was to name the leader of the religious community that I belong to now. This had to do with the values of this particular community, which insists on honesty and disclosure of our affiliation.
Having made those decisions, I find that the process of writing this memoir is easier, more enjoyable, and more rewarding than I expected it to be. You might think that the decision to pull back on what is said about others would neuter the book. Not so. Because I am focusing on myself--the good, the bad, and the ugly--the memoir is forcing me to confront my life in a deeper way and is more disclosing than it might have been otherwise.

You will come to your own decisions about how to talk about others in your memoir, but I hope this review of how I went about making my decisions is useful. The Publishing Pro.

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