The Ugly Truth: An Advice Column for Nonfiction Writers

August 15, 2016 § 14 Comments

Some pointed advice channeled through guest blogger Anita Gill:

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Anita Gill (aka Ugly Truth)

Dear Ugly Truth,

I want to write a memoir about my childhood, but I can’t seem to do it. Every time I sit down to start writing about it, I freeze up. I can’t put down a single word.

I’m so scared that my family will read my memoir and we will have a falling out. I’ve heard of this happening to many memoirists, and I don’t want to do any damage to my family.

How do I get over this fear and write?


Writer’s Block

*          *          *

Dear Writer’s Block,

Ah, the fear before the plunge! There’s so much at stake! You have a story you want to share with the world, and by “world” I’m referring to the 15 sentient beings who still read books. You have a narrator looking back on her past and trying to make sense of everything that happened, and coming to some illuminating reasons.

But what if Aunt Gayle gets upset you mentioned her seventh toe? Or how will your mother feel when you include that one time she forgot to pick you up from school and the Wattersons had to take you to their house and feed you stale crackers from their pantry?

Your paralyzing trepidation is merited. Every nonfiction writer who turns inward must face this. That’s why I’ve made a foolproof plan to help you with the process.

Don’t write the memoir. Ever!

Think about it: no one can get mad at something you never wrote!

Okay, I know my argument might seem extreme, but hear me out. I’m sure you’ve heard Anne Lamott’s quote, “You own everything that happened to you.” A lot of writers like to tote that around as a way to encourage you to write your memoir. The quote might be true, but your parents owned you, too. Cause they made you. Ergo, owning what happened to you means they have to own what happened too. Are you ready to draw out that contract with them? It’s almost as bad as being 30 and signing up with your parents for a Verizon family plan! And you don’t want to get their phone calls at 8 p.m. on a Friday night, complaining that you used up all of their data with photos of dogs in a BabyBjörn. That metaphor might seem drawn out, but I think I made myself clear. Don’t. Write.

You have so much to gain from thwarting your creative faculties. First off, you won’t be thinking about those horrible memories anymore. No sir! Put those away and bury them deep inside. Hold them in like a fart at a business meeting. There will be a time to express those feelings when you’re drunk next Thanksgiving or Kwanzaa. Don’t put your thoughts on paper where the public can read it and relate to the trials you endured.

The second advantage is you will have a lot more free time, so put it to good, productive use. Join a spin class. Learn to bake your own bread. Master a foreign language like Mandarin or Gaelic. Whatever you do, it will be much more rewarding than sitting at home alone all day, eating nothing but dry cereal, staring at a computer screen and writing terrible sentences for a mediocre book that you doubt will ever see the light of day. Why put yourself through all of that torture when Richard Simmons offers aerobics classes at his studio for only 15 dollars. Let me say that again. Fifteen. Dollars. Richard Simmons. Now you have something to talk to your parents about instead of drudging up those harmful memories you’re trying to make sense of.

So don’t write it in the first place! Do what normal people do. Avoid the issue. Binge Netflix. Dress up your cat as historic Civil War generals. That’s so much better than reaching deep down, finding a kernel of truth in this existence and putting it out there. There can’t be any good to come from that.


The Ugly Truth

Anita Gill was given this name when she was born so that her grandparents could pronounce it, but they called her “Annie” instead. She teaches English and writing in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Internet TendencyApeiron ReviewHippocampus MagazineDefenestration, and Eastlit.


§ 14 Responses to The Ugly Truth: An Advice Column for Nonfiction Writers

  • grimbeau says:

    Corking stuff-pass the truthometer!

  • Lisa Chesser says:

    I’ve avoided the issue and it’s so pleasant. But, the issue came back again and again in different forms. I think you should address the issue after you’re done dressing up the cat–cry–get it out–then either continue writing or throw it away, even shred it, and never look back.

  • I am not trying to be flippant… but the cats dressed up as civil war generals has peaked my curiosity… enjoyed the read.. .(would love to see a cat picture)

  • Carla Lancken says:

    Point well taken.

  • tinademarco says:

    The simple truth is when it becomes more difficult not to do the writing, then the real story will surface to get written. And, as we all know, there’s always a much more real story silently stalking the one we think we want to write.

  • I’ve been struggling with this. So I wrote in third person. Which completely eliminated the intimacy of my story, as well as taking away most of its impact. And it doesn’t ring true, it’s leaving me feeling like I’m working a fabrication. I recently decided to rewrite what I’ve got, editing back to first…and see how I feel about that version. Thanks for a kick in the butt! I don’t have to ever have anyone see it, but at least I will have gotten it out of me and been authentic about it.

  • Hear, hear, tinademarco. So true. It’s also true that when you open your mouth at Thanksgiving dinner to say, “Please pass the stuffing,” the suppressed story and pent up accusations at all those present get blurted out instead.

  • I wrote a book about my life until the age of 32. I did not have any problems with my family over my book.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Love this! (Though I did try not writing at all, that did not work out well for me. Not writing about loved ones . . . yeah, I could do that.)

  • Kim Gorman says:

    Enjoyed this. Very well done.

  • I highly recommend just vomiting it all out on the page. Use everyone’s real name when you’re writing it, too, and when you’re done, if you feel like you can’t face your family with this story in hand, change everyone’s name to Joe, Karen, John, Bob, and Lucille after the fact. Don’t change the names at the start of your writing. Otherwise, it loses its punch and you won’t be able to spill the beans — every last bean.

    When I was in my early 20s, I wrote a memoir about my childhood. The reality is, unless it’s really well written (mine surely wasn’t. Did I mention I was in my early 20s and I was writing a memoir of all things?), it’s unlikely many people will ever read it anyway. But man, is it liberating. What you’ll discover is there will be some gems in it you can take away and possibly use later. Plus, if you don’t write it, it’ll haunt you for the rest of your life. And you know if it’s haunting you too. That just means all the more reason why you MUST write it.

  • […] via The Ugly Truth: An Advice Column for Nonfiction Writers — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Very funny re-blog today, with many not so subtle truth-punches…

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