Writing Family Memoir: Finding the Guts
June 8, 2020 § 15 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
“What are you working on?” This is probably the question I am most often asked, after forced to reveal (at a cocktail party, to a random seat-mate on the train) that I am a writer.
I always experience a bit of impostor syndrome, even after these many decades of writing and publishing. After all, I know that when I answer the next question: “Have you written anything I might have heard of?” a pleasantly vacant facade will settle onto the face of the questioner, when I answer, “Mostly, I’ve published essays. Hundreds of them.”
A look of dismay – or is it panic – then settles onto the face of my seat-mate. Their only likely life experience with “the essay” might not have been since school days, when they were asked to write any number of three to five-paragraph essays in order to satisfy English curriculum requirements. “The essay” does not have a great reputation.
At this point, even if they are moderately impressed by and slightly curious about my credentials, they are also not eager to take a selfie. (Here I am with a famous essay writer I met on the train!)
I try to steer the conversation back to them, but they always want you to answer that first question (what are you working on?) I mumble something vague about writing a memoir about my family, about being a sister – and here there is an even longer pause, followed by genuine puzzlement. “Wow,” they usually say. “That takes guts. I mean, writing about family.”
Yes, it does take guts. Actually, what I would like to say is that one has to have any number of questionable personality traits to write anything longer than a few pages about one’s family, and expect it to hold together in a way that other people (not your family) might want to read. Especially when you are writing memoir. Writing your truth – which memoir requires – requires bravery. It demands audacity. It calls for some skill. And, indeed, it requires guts.
Sometimes I feel like the word “bravery” is too strong a word to describe the act of writing memoir. After all, isn’t memoir just remembering how things happened, and then writing those things, and your interpretation of them, down on paper or on your laptop? It’s not like you’re going to get a writing medal for your bravery, or a commendation for courage. It’s not like you ran the rapids or scaled the sheer face of a cliff.
Nevertheless, it is pretty brave and audacious to reveal your truth, and trust that that truth will resonate with others. Many would-be writers are stopped before they even start by voices in their upbringings that whisper (or maybe even scream) that it’s not polite to talk about yourself, or tell family secrets, or assume anyone has the slightest interest in anything YOU might have to say. (You get the idea.)
Audacity isn’t something often discussed in polite company. But if you don’t have a certain amount of audacity as a writer, you might as well keep writing those first bland twenty pages over and over again until the end of days (which doesn’t sound so far away right now…)
Audacity itself might be described in many different ways. Audacity might range from such spirited traits as “impudence” or “pluck,” to what I seek in my writing: boldness, backbone, chutzpah, daring.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Or, for our purposes, the guts. Because the two are linked. The heart and the guts.
The guts are the more energetic and visceral of the two. Okay, so the heart does its pumping thing, and obviously we would die if the heart stopped doing its job. And the heart gets all the lovey-dovey Valentine bling. But the guts … The guts imply your innards. Literally, intestinal fortitude. And what does that imply? Yes – the aforementioned pluck, along with confidence, mettle, tenacity. Nothing sugar-coated or wrapped up in a pink heart-shaped box.
You know the difference, even if you can’t explain it. It’s the need to express something in your heart, yes – but maybe it’s also the need to write something you feel in your gut. Or maybe you need to express that thing that bypassed your heart completely and started in your gut. You took that gut-thing, wrestled it into a heart-thing, then added the narrative to give shape to it. And, presto – you have a piece of writing. A real, organic, living-on-paper story made of heart and gristle and sweat and guts.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Writer, Clapboard House, Red Rock Review, The Same, Tishman Review, and – of course – the Brevity blog. She has an MFA from Bennington College, and lives north of Chicago. She posts links to published work at www.kathystevenson.com and tweets @k_stevenson01