So you’re writing a memoir and you don’t want to lie and say everything was rosy, but you don’t want your family to send you hate mail. Whatcha gonna write? The big question is who you gonna write for?
The best memoirs are those where the author has come to some kind of understanding or healing from troubles. When the bad stuff is raw, then the revenge memoirs raise their serpent heads and who gains from those? Only the voyeurs. Everyone involved in the story, including the writer, is left feeling angry, and the innocent reader hoping for a good story with an inspirational ending is left blindsided. So it’s best to take a step back and consider…
If you’re writing solely for yourself, then you can whine and howl as much as you want. And guess what – only you are going to enjoy that. It may help you heal. Hide that manuscript under your bed until you can get some perspective. If you want to leave your memories to your family – kids, grandkids, sisters, brothers – write for them, which means tone things down, be tactful, try to understand what made your “perpetrators” behave badly. Some people are very sensitive and “exaggerate,” as Augustin Burroughs (Running With Scissors) has been accused of. He’s writing for a big audience so he could use some sensationalism to sell his books. You, lets hope you’re not in it for the big money and are mature enough to be polite.
There are always two sides to a story and readers will get a more 3D picture of your real-life characters if you can get inside their heads to decipher their behaviors or imagine what it was that caused them to be “that way.” If you write with at least some degree of understanding, then you should be able to stand proudly (and bravely) by your work in the face of your mother. Or your father, or your siblings. And, of course, it depends on how sensitive your family members are. (See Lori Gottlieb’s essay Mothers, Brace Yourself in the May 7, 2009, issue of The New York Times.)
Maybe the moral of this story is to be careful how you treat your kids because they could grow up and bite you with a revenge memoir. Here’s a light-hearted look at a dad’s fear. Me, I think I’m only guilty of shouting, “Clean your room!” too much.