Edit your writing; don’t edit your life

 

Most of us have had moments in our lives when something bad happened. The scale of “bad” is incredibly broad. It stretches from forgettable to life-changing and covers a  staggering array of situations, actions, reactions, and consequences. For memoir writers, there’s a strong temptation to downplay if not ignore such episodes. Doing so, however, creates a false narrative, a snapshot of a moment the way it “should” have been, rather than one which depicts what actually happened.

When writing in the abstract, like this, it’s easy to toss off advice that doesn’t impact the advice-giver personally. That doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.

Anne Lamott is often quoted when this topic comes up, as it often does in my memoir writing classes. One of my favorites from her is: “There is nothing as sweet as a comeback, when you are down and out, about to lose, and out of time.” Since I primarily write action/adventure fiction, this admonition feels as if it’s designed especially for me, or more accurately, for my characters. It’s doubly true for memoirists.

I suspect there are two kinds of memoir readers: those who seek a “There, but for the grace of God, go I” revelation, and those who prefer to become absorbed in real-life struggles against adversity. This latter group mirrors fiction readers quite closely. They’re less interested in the outcome of a fight than they are in the tenacity, ingenuity, and integrity of the fighter.

And that’s precisely why difficult topics should never be glossed over in either memoir or fiction. The difference is that a reader can always grab another story by the same fiction writer. For the memoirist, there’s only one tale to be told.

All too often my memoir students worry about the feelings of those who treated them badly, but for the life of me, I don’t understand why. Nor, evidently does the redoubtable Anne Lamott. Here’s my other favorite quote of hers: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Yes, people do ugly things to each other, and when someone does it to you, is it really that hard to write about? I imagine it would be significantly more difficult to write about the horrible things we’ve done to others. But even then, what’s the point of glossing over it? To make ourselves look better? Will that change who we are, or does it merely postpone the discovery for those who don’t know us well?

Tell the truth, even if it’s ugly. Tell it, even if it’s painful. Tell it, because if you don’t, you’ll never get past it, and you’ll never become the person you long to be.

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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10 Responses to Edit your writing; don’t edit your life

  1. Doris Reidy says:

    It occurs to me you haven’t written a memoir yet. Or did I miss it?

  2. Amanda says:

    Amen! Love Anne Lamott 🙂

  3. Margot says:

    Strangely, but I suppose not coincidently, this comes at a time when I have come through an ugly, life-changing event, which was preceded by a bible verse yesterday about “the lost sheep.” I guess God is trying to tell me something. He’s also telling me that he is using you in a very positive way in people’s lives. Thank you.

  4. Susanne says:

    I read this post about 3 hours ago, then went for a skate and pondered. There’s so much I’d like to say but I’m editing myself! I understand why people don’t want to disrespect the people who treated them bad. I’ve had considerable therapy to help me understand this very matter. If significant trauma is involved its an awful mess to sort out and I wouldn’t advocate anyone undertake writing a trauma memoir w/out psychological support. There will be consequences. As a concrete example I’ll use myself and my oldest brother. When we reminisce about our father its like we were raised by two different people. He simply does not/cannot see the man I grew up with. When/if I get the courage to write a memoir of my childhood and adolescence I know there will be fallout amongst my family members for a) revealing the shame and b) misremembering c)misrepresenting. Its complex. I agree with you 100% on your last paragraph. Telling is essential to healing.

    • joshlangston says:

      You raise a valid and quite cogent point. Can two or more people see the same thing in wildly different ways? Certainly! Conflicting witnesses are a mainstay of courtroom dramas. There’s no reason to think it’ll be any different in our lives. [smile] As always, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  5. An-l says:

    You know how I felt about telling one part of my life when I wrote my memoir, but I’m truly grateful you encourage to do it. It was healing to finally share it and also made my memoir more truthful and complete. Thank You, Josh!

  6. Barry says:

    Sage advice Josh. Thanks. I’m going to take your memoir class soon.

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