Does It Matter If I Never Publish My Memoir?

September 7, 2017 § 28 Comments

By Karen Pickell

More than a year ago, I completed a draft of a memoir I’d been wanting to write for a very long time. It’s hard to say when the need to tell this story began. I started keeping journals as a pre-teen, and I’ve continued to fill notebooks throughout my adulthood. I signed up for my first creative writing class when I was 32 and pregnant with my oldest child. While my kids were toddlers, I began exploring my memory, crafting short pieces that I wasn’t sure would become a connected whole. In 2009, when I was 41, I applied to graduate school with the intention of writing a cohesive memoir. After I earned my MA, it took another two years to figure out how to shape my story from beginning to end.

Strangely though, since I finished the draft, the urgency I once felt has faded. It’s been usurped, I think, by fear—fear of being seen, of being known, even though being known is what I wanted most, because I’d felt unseen and unheard for much of my life.

My fear is multifaceted. My story cannot be understood without saying who and what have caused me to feel small and invisible. Some writers have waited until the secret keepers died before telling their stories. We are conflicted by our loyalty to those from whom we’ve always sought permission to speak. We don’t want to inflict pain, despite the pain we’ve experienced ourselves. We are afraid that if we tell our stories, ties to important people in our lives might be irreparably damaged or, even worse, severed altogether.

I’m uncomfortable with the possibility that by publishing my memoir I may hurt someone close to me, but I’m also afraid I’ll be hurt myself by the reactions of my loved ones. Am I resilient enough to withstand the very real possibility that some may try to discredit my own lived experience?

Was I fair in my writing? Did I talk enough about good moments, happy times? Then again, maybe my telling is too subtle, tries to make things sound too normal, when so much was not normal at all.

After so many years of writing, I’m no longer sure I’ll try to publish this book. I’m already a better person and a better writer for having completed the draft. I’ve begun to trust my voice and I’ve learned to see a long project through to completion. I kept the promise I made to myself to finish writing the story.

But I suspect that if publishing my memoir wasn’t important to me, I wouldn’t be sitting here anguishing over it. My original need to be known lingers and won’t be satisfied by confining my story to my hard drive. I want to connect with others who’ve had similar experiences, to help them also be heard and seen and known.

Money’s always nice, but I didn’t set out to write a book as a means of earning income. The respect of the literary community, though, does matter to me, which raises another fear—that my writing isn’t good enough to communicate my experience clearly and my motivation for telling this particular story will be misunderstood by readers who don’t know me in real life.

I’ve read takes by successful authors on the fallout from publishing their own stories—a gazillion different opinions on the ethics of memoir—and I’ve developed my own pretty strong opinion: I think everyone has the right to tell their own story, being careful to include only what’s absolutely necessary from the overlap with others’ stories, and that it’s best for each writer to trust their own judgment when it comes to anticipating consequences in their relationships.

It turns out that I’m the one who must give myself permission to release my memoir into the world, negative reactions be damned.

If I decide to publish, I’m certain someone will find something in my memoir to criticize. It’s possible some people won’t understand my story or won’t like me very much for publishing it. Will I like me if I publish it? Will I like me if I don’t? Will I respect myself? Answering these questions won’t banish my fear, but will help me find the courage to proceed.


Karen Pickell holds a MA from Kennesaw State University. Her work has appeared in Bluestem Online Quarterly, Conte, and in several independently published anthologies. She founded the website Adoptee Reading Resource and she blogs at Originally from Ohio, Karen currently lives in Florida.

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§ 28 Responses to Does It Matter If I Never Publish My Memoir?

  • Thank you so much for articulating this, Allison. I feel the same conflicts and contradictions and appreciate the very varied understanding you have of this issue. It’s anything but simple.

  • Joanne says:

    “It’s anything but simple”–so true, Lynette. Karen, thank you for articulating what’s been on my mind as well, as I work through what I hope is the final revision of my memoir. Then, I’ll be where you are…deciding about publishing.

  • philipparees says:

    Might you publish/ disseminate short episodes that are relatively self sufficient to test both its likely reception and your own feelings once you have? On your blog or as a guest elsewhere? Just a thought of dipping a toe in the waters?

    • Since my first reply to this essay addressed Allison and I realize it’s from Karen, I’ll take the liberty of commenting again.

      Ditto, Karen. My feelings exactly.

      Like you, I’m uncomfortable with the attention—positive and negative—that publication of my memoir would bring me. (Excerpts have received some formal recognition by the literary community.) I’ve been squirming over the same considerations as you have, plus the question of whether or not to let my family see my memoir before submitting it for publication. IF I submit it for publication.

      I’m heartened and delighted by your astonishing candor in this essay. Just putting these feelings out there is brave. (And Brevity is a good place to do it.)

    • What a good idea, Philipparees! Thank you.

  • Peg Conway says:

    You articulate something I’ve begun to ask myself as well. Thanks.

  • Angie Sim says:

    This is a terrifyingly accurate representation of how I feel when writing overall- the reason I live for writing (and vice versa, write to live) is because it allows me to explore my own emotions and reflect on what I’ve experienced throughout my life.

    However, many of the pent up emotions I depend on writing to defuse, are memories I don’t want others to explore. The majority of them are too personal, or will hurt someone I know. They may even involve someone else’s past or personal life (if that personal life is intertwined with my own, and has impacted me emotionally in some way) and that’s when things get complicated on my part as a writer.

    In fact, a lot of what I usually feel and contemplate can be directed back towards the pain others feel, not just my own. Which is why writing about it is a sensitive issue altogether.

    Because of this, it’s difficult for me to weed out what’s appropriate for my readers to take in and what’s not. I often have to ask for permission from people before publishing material, in fear that what I’m putting out there may hurt them in the process. But even asking them feels rude and invasive of me at times, so typically I end up only publishing about 10% of the material I want to share.

    Even if it’s the truth, and nobody can deny that what happened… happened, I feel uncomfortable writing about certain issues. Similar to you, I also considered writing a highly personal piece, only to think about writing it after the people involved in my emotions naturally fade away.

    You captured my feelings about the matter perfectly. And I’m sure there are many other writers who feel the same way. Very accurate.

  • jamesholdaway says:

    Yes. A difficult dilemma. I, too, have that problem but it’s who to ‘kill off’ first.

  • Angie Sim says:

    (This is also one of the many reasons I stick with poetry and fiction- the content poses the potential of being vague, invalidated and broadened, so not only can people interpret it in different ways and thus get a discussion going, arguing such- but it also makes me feel like I’m not targeting a specific person in my writing, so that person won’t feel uncomfortable.)

  • haven’t even started my planned memoir yet, but already i’ve been thinking of these things, so your thoughts have been helpful. i’m thinking of writing it while accommodating all things, if that’s possible — telling the truth in a way that doesn’t hurt, but transcends. am i even remotely good enough to accomplish this?? probably will just stick to reviews . . . 🙂 thanks for this post.

  • I’m sure your post will resonate with many. I know it resonates with me, for different reasons (or maybe not so different). I’ve published three books–fiction and non-fiction–and another is almost ready for print. Well before those were born, I’d written a memoir and had anguished about much of what you’d worried above. How do you balance the importance of voice and truth, with privacy and care for others? Much more.
    Still, I was going to go ahead with it.
    I had an agent who believed in it, an interested editor, and then … circumstances and timing got in the way and the project never quite got to a publishing contract. It had disappointed me at the time to shelve it. However, over the years I’ve become convinced it was as it was meant to be and now I don’t know if I’ll ever publish it. Much of the growth and healing was done in the writing itself, in the affirmation that it mattered, in the validation of those who’d read the draft and ‘saw’ more of me through it. Some days I believe it may never become a book, and I feel I’d be absolutely fine with it. Other times I wonder if it will one day see print, though I know that then there’d be a whole new life to fold into it … and that it will change and shift and morph to something else entirely even as it will remain my memoir.
    Whatever you end up doing, may it be what will feed your soul, your heart, your mind, and journey.

  • ingrid says:

    Writing in itself is a risk. I myself sometimes I wonder if some individuals would seek out the players in my story, though no names are mentioned, and publicly try to contradict my story making me a liar to embarass me That makes me feel vulnerable.

  • This resonates with a piece I wrote on my blog titled Write-on. Your sentence that grabbed my attention was,”It turns out I’m the one who must give myself permission to release my memoir into the world.” Aren’t we always the ones hardest on ourselves.

  • Also looked at your website on adoption. Interesting. I’m also a “lost daughter” who made contact with my birth mom in 2008. It’s a long story as always.

  • Sarah Evans says:

    I definitely relate. Many of your doubts are what have kept me from continuing writing my memoir. I wish the answers were easier! Thanks for sharing this.

  • Publish! Publish! Publish! (Said in the Beavis&Butthead tone) But I understand these thought obstacles well, so much so that I don’t even write mine in the first place. :p (Now I tell myself in the same tone: Write! Write! Write! And then publish!)

  • Mary Lou says:

    I’m hearing you!! This is exactly where I’m at. I’ve written a memoir around a specific event in my life that affected so much, for better and worse. Right now, most of the chapters are under protected password with only my children having the password. The benefits of writing it and letting go just might be enough for me.

  • ateafan says:

    You have captured all that went on in me while I wrote my account of events in my life – only on the one page! ☺️ The relief of having my version written down in some kind of order & the whole process involved in getting there was worthwhile. My writing improved, my outlook for the future improved and although I may not publish, relationships with family members improved after I let some read the best bits. All I wanted was for ‘the penny to drop’ and it did! Worth more to me than publishing but that would also be great.

  • loua Ferdinand Douo says:

    Salut comment va tu? J’aimerai faire de l’amitié avec vous est tu possible.

  • Janet Thomas says:

    This is a brilliant post, Allison. I face the same dilemma; I wrote a memoir for my PhD thesis in Creative Writing and for the last three years I’ve had repeated questions about when I’m going to publish it. I reply that I’ve ‘moved on’. I want to explore different aspects of my writing and I have managed to that through my blog and other outlets. I have also used sections of my memoir as the basis for many of my stories; I play around with the tense, the voice, the character(s), the narrator or the time frame. This has helped me gain distance and objectivity from the memoir. A memoir can be a rich source of material for a number of stories and in transforming those sections I feel as if I have ‘transformed’ myself. Good luck with it all and thanks for a terrific post.

  • […] due to Hurricane Irma, but I’m still smiling about having a short essay of mine called “Does It Matter If I Never Publish My Memoir?” published on the Brevity blog. Thank you, Allison […]

  • Marla says:

    I think the artist knows when the moment to go public arrives. Not that she won’t feel anxious, but the risk will seem like the right risk at the right time. Listening to yourself is the most valuable way to move forward, publishing it or not.

  • Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:

  • Alan Biné says:

    I hope I don’t offend you by saying you may be overthinking this. I, for one, would like to hear your story. You seem so honest about your feelings. You must know that no matter how well intentioned you are, there will probably be some folks who won’t embrace your writing. That’s life. I write too, mostly fluff. You’re more than welcome to take a look.

  • E.M. SHORT says:

    Are you me in another dimension, or am I you? It’s as though you looked inside my brain, heart, and soul and wrote down everything that I identify as me! Thank you for articulating all my questions and issues.

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