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.