What Do I Tell My Teens about My Memoir?
January 20, 2016 § 14 Comments
by Jennifer Lang
Sitting at the table smearing hummus on oven-warmed pita last Saturday, I was caught off guard by my daughter’s question. “So, Mommy, what are you going to do after you graduate in July?” she asked. I had been home in Raanana less than twenty-four hours after my fourth residency at a MFA program in America when the subject of my creative thesis and the future came up in conversation. My body still felt cold from snowy Vermont despite the bright Israeli sun streaming in every window.
“Continue writing a book,” I said with conviction.
“About what?” she asked, testing me. Perhaps my daughter, the youngest and most innocent of my three kids, has heard enough of our marital spats to gauge the up-and-down temperature in our house. She knows I write creative nonfiction and have a tell-all tendency, fearing every teenager’s worst dream: will Mom expose us?
“Not sure yet,” I said, although I was. For the past six months, I have been traveling down memory lane, scouring old photo albums from our wedding and writing about the major crossroads in our marriage. But how could I tell my baby I’m writing about our union in order to explore what makes me—my husband, us, you, him, her, anybody—stay when things get tough? That I am on this journey thanks to my fellow writers’ probing questions about why I returned to a country that riles me, even frightens me? During my most recent workshop, I shared the first twenty pages of my manuscript with my cohorts and faculty leaders, eager to know if the material engaged them. Yes, everyone said, using words like riveting, compelling, hooked.
For years, I had been writing about my ambivalent relationship with the country of Israel, a place where I had never intended to live but visited often until, in my early twenties, I unexpectedly met and fell in love with a French immigrant and stayed. Israel, to me, has always been halfway around the world from my California-girl reference point. At the start of graduate school, I told my first mentor my intention to write a collection of linked essays about these feelings; he encouraged me to let go and write new material instead.
Then, early in my second semester, I submitted a segmented essay titled “Sealed” about running to our sealed room in Israel, as newlyweds, during the First Gulf War, and over two decades later during the Israel-Hamas War, with our kids. In the intervening years, we moved—from Israel to France to California to New York to Israel. Each move involved compromises and negotiations, deals we sealed, often with a kiss, sometimes with anger and resentment and always with great sacrifice. One of us chose country, the other religious lifestyle.
My mentor suggested I divide it into two essays: one on my marriage and one on the psychological effects of war. A list essay on the latter poured onto the page. But my marriage? Why, I wondered, would that interest anybody? I opened a Word document, introduced us and our core issues, saved it as “Saying I Do,” and closed it, blocked.
A few months later, I renamed it “Scenes from My Mixed Marriage” and approached our twenty-seven year history in bite-sized acts. I wrote about the first time we met; our linguistic flirtation in Hebrish, Franglais, and Frebrew; our intense chemistry; and my husband’s proposal to move in together after one month. I described my inner struggles about giving up graduate school, career and country—for him. I revisited heart-wrenching conversations, sometimes between the two of us and others with a therapist, about where to live and how to raise our kids Jewishly. I realized that my ambivalence about where I live is intimately tied to my complex, tri-cultural marriage.
Throughout the years, I have heard Mary Karr, William Zinsser, Kathryn Harrison, Anne Lamott and others discuss the importance of writing our emotional truth even about people who are still alive and in our lives. I received my husband’s blessing to write. But I never considered how, what or when to tell my sixteen, eighteen and twenty-two year old children that I would be writing about their father and me, which includes them too.
Even if the process of writing, revising and perhaps publishing a book takes years, they will always be my children. My drafts now include scenes about sex, escalating marital tension, our discussions on staying together or calling it quits. I don’t think kids should be privy to all that about their parents. Or am I acting prude and protective, a literary hover-mother?
I pledge to revisit the topic in six months, after I graduate, after the structure of the story becomes clearer, after I gain more confidence with the manuscript, after I unseal myself from all the places and parts I have played for so many years as wife, mom, woman and wanderer.
An MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Jennifer Lang resides in Raanana, Israel, where she writes, runs a writers salon and teaches yoga. Her essays have been published in Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, the South Loop Review, The Indian River Review and elsewhere. She is currently working on her first memoir about staying in a complex marriage.
do it…! they say “write about what you know”… who best to write your story than you. i think it would be a fantastic legacy to share with your children, now grown up (almost). i am sure they’ll appreciate your honesty and realise you’re not just ‘mom’ – you are an intelligent, prolific woman. i think you should write it. x
A great piece of writing, Jen.
I think that in many ways it’s a great idea – to understand how you came to the decisions you did and how the process of life unfolds. But I do agree with you 1000% when you say ” I don’t think kids should be privy to all that about their parents” and really some things should remain sacred between you and your husband with or without kids involved.
You are a great writer, none-the-less.
I applaud your discussion of a difficult decision. An option is to frame your story as fiction, to avoid the sensitivities of your children yet explore what appear to be, for you, important aspects of your relationship with your husband.
Reblogged this on smp19671 and commented:
Beautiful example of the writer’s dilemma. Tough question…lovely expression.
This sounds like a wonderful book. I hope you take my name and let me know when it gets published. Writing/revising/publishing is such a long process your teenaged children might be of an age where they can handle your stories. In fact they find them insightful and helpful and inspiring. Godspeed on this work of yours. I am looking forward to reading your book.
I’ve never known what to say about memoir that way. I’ve gotten quite shy even about using conversations with my love for silly little blog posts, since after all the experiences are at least as much my love’s as mine. Writing it down preserves it, and shares it, but also puts in an observer who wasn’t there, and it makes implicit that there’ll be more observers in later on.
Great article. As a memoir writer myself, I know the angst you’re feeling about writing about people who are still living. Zinsser, et al, taught me to write through it as though nobody else would read it. After mine was done and edited I then began to worry about the repercussions. It’s a personal choice. I let my MS sit for a few months after it was ready for publishing as I went through the rollercoaster of emotions and decisions, and finally published.
Very much enjoyed reading this Jennifer. You have given me an opportunity to pause and consider my own writing path as it pertains to a memoir. Thank you. I wish you clarity as you work through the decisions at hand. Please do keep me posted as I would love to read what comes of this. Cheers, Katie
Great post. I’ve been recording my 96 year old grandmother as she tells her life story. I’m planning on writing a short biography but am coming up against similar issues you describe. Her story is beautiful and complex and she is more than willing to share with me, her grandson. Trouble is her kids, my mom and her two siblings, may be uncomfortable with parts of her story. I want to give an accurate portrayal, but I definitely don’t want to hurt my family members. Thanks for the great post. Got me thinking…
This was wonderful and engaging. I want to learn more about her book ‘Dumped….’ . She grabbed my attention. Thanks Dinty for sharing.
As a mother to three sons aged 21, 19 and 19, I can totally relate to your emotions about writing this memoir. We do have a responsibility to protect our children yet in a way that helps them to grow and expand into confident and happy adults. So it’s vital that we teach them people do things at times, not to hurt them, they do it because they feel………whatever they feel. People have a need that they want to meet, or a desire to fulfil. For you in this instance, I am guessing from this piece of writing that you have a desire to write your memoir. So I would love to read it because I enjoyed reading this piece of writing from you. Thank you for sharing it.
Thank you for sharing your journey!! Loved what you wrote