Monday, April 2, 2007

In Response to Memoir Week on Slate...

The other week, Slate hosted “Memoir Week”, assessing the state of the modern memoir and posing the following question to a group of memoir writers:
How do you, as memoirists, choose to alert people who appear in your books that you are writing about them—or do you not alert them at all? If you do, do you discuss the book with family members and friends while the work is in progress? How do you deal with complaints from people who may remember events differently than you?

These are questions I get asked a lot as I travel around talking about our book, Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing Up Solo. When Daphne and I were inviting writers to contribute to our anthology, some told us they wouldn’t be able to write anything about their parents until they were safely 6 feet under. But not me. In fact, the things I wrote about my mother in my essay for the book were things I had already told her. Or rather, wrote to her. I started writing her letters when I was still living under her roof, at age 16. They were love letters with an ultimatum: “If you want to continue to have a relationship with me, pay attention,” they’d generally begin. My mother still has these letters tucked away somewhere in her nightstand drawer.

But still, people who read my essay in Only Child generally to want to know how my mother “took” my essay. And then there’s that other question: “What did your ex-husband think?”

In answer to both: As I finished writing the piece, I decided that ongoing relationships with both Mom and ex were more important to me than any piece of writing. So I made the decision to show them both the draft and give them the opportunity to ask me to make changes before I went to print. Writer friends thought I was nuts to open up my draft to editorial input from the leading characters in my drama. Granted, I was not prepared to completely revise, nor was I willing to let certain details or particular turns of phrases go. But each (Mom and ex) asked for one or two emendations around details that were important to them to mask. I honored their requests.

My mother—like Sean Wilsey’s—agreed that I had the right to tell the truth, and she actually, bravely, agreed with my version of truth when it came to my characterization of her, and of our earlier and often painful dynamic. My ex, for whom wounds were perhaps more fresh, may have told the story a different way, but he, too, told me he saw the veracity in my account. I give these two characters in my drama extreme kudos. They each proved big enough to let me own my experience, my tale. Mom remains my biggest fan (love ya!), and yes, to many people’s surprise, my ex and I wish each other nothing but deep happiness and are still, if at a remove, in touch.

I'd be eager to hear how other contributors to our book have experienced the aftermath of writing about their families -- or how anyone who writes personally has dealt with these particular challenges.

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