Years ago, I attended the wedding of a friend’s daughter.
Ten months later, my friend’s annual Christmas letter informed her readers that the newlyweds were no longer together. In less than a year, the marriage had ended.
I was curious what had happened. And who wouldn’t be? I had sat in a small town’s Knights of Columbus Hall with hundreds of strangers, and watched this close-knit family dance to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” new groom included.
But I would never get the skinny on the breakup. The author (a.k.a mother of the bride) wrote, “ I won’t go into details because it’s not my story to tell.” I’ve never forgotten that small phrase, and have used it myself ever since.
As a memoir writer, learning which tale is yours to tell is no small responsibility.
For your eyes only, journaling is different from article writing, and definitely different from memoir. Yes, they all involve writing, but each has a different outcome. Journaling is discovering your truth in private. Journaling is meant to be messy and never requires editing.
Personal essays and memoir, on the other hand, help others learn something you‘ve previously worked through; something you’ve discovered to be true. These latter genres require editing and a higher level of self examination. They also demand restraint. Before you publish, you need to know which story is yours to tell.
Throughout the past 20 years I’ve also freelanced, writing copy and content for businesses. Article writing is easier than personal essays because you take yourself out of the equation. You simply research and report facts, and other people’s biases. Article writing for business frees you from personal commitment.
If you dislike being pinned down, then writing memoir is the ultimate challenge. This genre lies somewhere in the messy middle between article writing and journaling. I found that out last year when I wrote my first collection of personal essays.
Marketers use words like “eyeballs,” “target audience,” and “buyer personas.” For the copywriter, they mean the same thing; they are readers.
My job as a copywriter and content writer allowed me to be a “truth-teller” for an organization. The purpose of the writing was clear: provide a glimpse of the passion behind the brand, while showing how its products served the reader. Written words were the go-between the company and the customer, guiding them to an exchange that resulted in mutual benefits — ideally, a sale.
Not long after my divorce a few years ago, I found myself moving toward a different writing genre. I wanted to organize my personal thoughts and experiences into a ebook. The one I had in mind was not about the divorce, nor my ex husband, but about the process of downsizing my house after the dust had settled.
I’d been in a post-divorce drift for way too long. I wanted to get this right. Writing and publishing some personal essays seemed like the way to shake me out of my stupor.
In memoir you aim to crystalize specific moments from the wide open sky of your memory. Writing personal accounts of events requires you to take a stand, which means leaving 90% of the nebulous details out. This is difficult.
Diplomatic and logical, I can easily live with equal and opposite sides of any story. But like a bird in flight over a battlefield, at some point I had to land. Memoir is the fence a writer erects somewhere down in the middle.
I had never tried turning themes from my journals, where I pen bursts of raw thoughts and feelings; into informative, helpful articles to share online.
I knew I’d have to find a way to tell my story without blame, taking responsibility for my story alone. It was important to me to keep it clean, without dragging my ex and our kids through the telling, yet stories I had never properly digested were percolating to the surface, providing juicy fodder for my book. How do you tell an accurate story? That was the question.
The essays had to pass the sniff test of authenticity. Readers know when you’re hiding something. A writer’s words should taste like truth.
And yet, some details were not solely mine to tell.
How do you write about difficult memories with truth, when other people are involved? Just as you write to clarify events of the past, your stories also define you. As a considerate human, ex-wife, and mother to three kids, how would I select what goes in and what to leave out? Fairness and discretion were crucial.
In an interview with Geoff Edgers of the Washington Post, Chrissie Hynde said of her 2015 memoir Reckless, “I couldn’t have written this while my folks were alive.” So I have something in common with the rock star. I’m an open book with complete strangers, but it’s my immediate family I want to protect. Perhaps I’d tell a different tale if key players were not still in the picture.
You can wait too long to tell your story, though. Time dilutes the potency of a tale. My memories have simmered so long that strands of compassion are stewed into my story, mellowing its bitter edge. I was culpable in so many chapters. Some transgressions don’t seem so important anymore. I can even laugh at some of our antics after all these years.
And yet, certain long-buried details leap to mind that cut me, breathless, to the quick. Sometimes it still matters what happened, although I’m gentler with myself these days. I’m gentler with others. And if confusion flares up, I wait awhile — sometimes years — for the wherewithal to edit.
Ah, the delectable acceptance of one’s own cognitive dissonance… Finding nuance interesting, and accepting all the layers of truth is good for my mental health. But diplomacy was immobilizing me as a writer.
The way I tackled my memoir dilemma was to use an old copywriting hack. I decided to focus on telling the story to one person. Writing to one person was a rule I used as a freelance copywriter. If this rule helped me write copy, I thought it keep me coherent as I tried to turn my story into a Kindle ebook. Just as I suspected, this little trick prevented the navel gazing and erratic emotion that occurs when I’m journaling. It helped me write something worthwhile.
The “one person” I chose was someone who was just beginning to entertain the idea of downsizing. I wrote my story with the intention of encouraging her to make a decision one way or the other. The result (I hope) is a story told with honesty, without getting mired in blame, regret, or self analysis. I simply edited my memories by sharing what I thought my audience needed to hear.
Narrowing my audience to the single reader who would benefit from my story enabled me to write a constructive one. I could turn off the autobiographical firehose and pour her a tall, cool drink. These self-imposed parameters kept me on the writing rails, helping me decide which details to include and which to leave out. Because I intended my book of essays for a single, imagined individual, it was easy focus on the positive aspects of downsizing after a divorce. I could even deviate a bit and tell how some of the more difficult memories were what guided me to a happy conclusion.
Once I had this reader in my mind’s eye, I knew exactly how to tell my story. This “one person rule” was critical in helping sort memories and emotions that kept me in that house for too long, nearly causing financial ruin. It also helped me extract what finally motivated me to make the move. Knowing my reader allowed me to make helpful suggestions based on my experience. I could also share the empathy I feel for someone at just such a crossroads in life.
Knowing my audience and my purpose in writing, allowed me to tell my truth without unnecessary rants and petty details. As I edited the book, I spent very little time deciding if I should “go there” regarding my family’s past. I didn’t need to spare my reader details I might have written in my journal, because they simply did not figure in to the books’ outcome. I never felt dishonest excluding juicy, haunting memories because, despite any omission, here was the whole truth.
I represented exactly the “me” I would divulge to someone walking a similar path. Empathy kept me honest. I had figured out how to transform what could have been an aimless journal entry into a personal essay with some muscle.
Best of all, my old copywriting trick kept me focused on what was mine, distilled from all the baggage I’d been carrying all those years. My version of the downsizing process was good enough, without trying to account for all the other players. My first book of memoirs turned out to be 100% my story to tell.