I will be taking off the next three weeks. My next post will appear Friday, October 21.
I’ve never worried about offending anyone while writing. Maybe it’s all those years of uncensored diary entries about mad crushes and revenge fantasies and how my mother infuritated me – but getting the words down about real people always came easily.
The trick, of course, is when the time comes for those people to see those words. Last month, Meghan Ward posted on her blog, Writerland, about the dangers of airing one’s “family’s dirty laundry.” Publishing words – however honest – about those we love is dicey business, it’s true, but don’t we own our stories, whoever else’s they intersect with? Isn’t it our job as writers to do with them what we will, and our readers’ (and editors’) to squawk when we slide into revenge or bias or mean-spiritedness?
My memoir, The Water Will Hold You, tells the journey of a skeptic – me – into someone who prays regularly. The book started as a way to write about an ineffable topic – prayer – and soon became a narrative. After all, I needed to tell the story of how I came to pray, the factors and events that led me to even consider it as an option in the first place. Certain people played roles in that narrative, and to do my book justice, I had to describe those roles with honesty and relevance.
I aired a lot of family laundry. It helped that, by the time of the final rewrite, my parents and my brother had died. I’m not being flip. I could never have written the book I wrote otherwise – because the book is shaped by loss. I did worry a little about what certain friends of my parents might think. But this wasn’t a Mommie Dearest tell-all. I portrayed my parents and brother as flawed, sure, but as human – just as I tried to portray myself.
The hardest decisions about “outing” people came not about immediate family, then, but about two people, still living. When Jenny Sanford published her memoir about her marriage to the former governor of South Carolina, who cheated on her while on a supposed hiking trip in the Appalachias, “The book doesn’t make him look bad. It just quotes him.”
True, but still. I agonized. Memoir isn’t hagiography. But I’m a wimp when it comes to pissing people off — even when I never want to see those people again. I changed the name of one, and when he found the published book and blogged about the dangers of dating a writer, he outed himself. Fair enough.
The other person, I took more pains with. I didn’t want to hurt or anger her – but I couldn’t gloss over certain choices she’d made, choices that had a direct impact on the events in the book. I had to tell her that I had written a book in which she played a role – but how to tell her? One day, I took a deep breath and did it. I’d written “honestly about the past,” I said, hoping my euphemism would signal to her the reason she might want her name changed. She didn’t. “I’d love to read it, though,” she said. “You will,” I said, “once it’s published.” I didn’t let her see – or vet – a word before then. The book uses her name. She muttered something about libel, but has never said a word to me about it.
So it all ended okay. But I remember the tenterhooks I was on, trying to decide how to handle the portrayal of these two people. And even though my book has been out for four years, I’m still sucseptible to anxiety over upsetting someone, as I was reminded this summer when a cousin phoned whom I hadn’t spoken to in years. He’d read the book and wanted to send me a note about his thoughts. Uh-oh. I waited three weeks before returning his call and giving him my address, fretting about the one brief comment made in the book about his parents’ marriage, a comment that only a close family member would recognize. The note arrived. I opened it nervously. He wrote about being moved by the book, about wishing he’d thanked my father for how Dad had helped him. I teared up. Then, I read the next sentence: “I didn’t agree with all of your book, but it was interesting.”