I Can’t Believe You Wrote That

February 15, 2021 § 32 Comments

By Joelle Fraser

It started out as most pandemic relationships do, with a post. In this case it was mine, on Facebook: a story about a plagiarizing student. That night, a witty response popped up in my inbox. A quick search revealed the sender was a 50ish divorced novelist with a cute kid and reassuring politics.

Soon we were texting like teens, a rapid-fire exchange of lives defined by writing and parenting during a plague. By the next night, the topic drifted to the reasons for our divorces.

“Can I call you?” he wrote.

I paused. This felt like the online equivalent of a date, and I wasn’t ready. But it seemed coy to say no, and besides, we lived in different time zones in the middle of a pandemic. How fast could we possibly go? The call turned out to be flirty and fun, and in a merlot-inspired moment, I suggested we mail each other our books.

The next night he wrote: “I looked up your address on Mapquest…a 15 hour drive.”

I felt myself flush as I scanned a map. I typed in a city, half way. “7 hours,” I replied, picturing a hotel room, moody light slanting through the blinds, the swirl and clink of glasses.

But with the dawn came a cold vision of this man sitting on a couch, turning the pages of the memoir one reviewer praised (?) as “scorchingly honest.” This is what it felt like: Conjure up your deepest, darkest confession and then imagine a romantic interest reading it before he even knows how you like your coffee.

Meanwhile, I’d have his book of fiction. It’s not unlike losing at strip poker—you’re sitting there shivering in your undies while the other person lounges in fully clothed comfort. Thus is memoir.

The first time it happened was during my book tour, 18 years ago. I was having lunch with Sherman Alexie, who’d blurbed my book. (He’d eventually go on to write his own memoir, but if you’d told him that then, he’d have said you were nuts.)

“I have to admit,” he said with an apologetic wince, mentioning a scorching incident from the book, “I can’t believe you wrote that.”

He’d named one of the two things in my memoir I regret writing. At the time, it threw me. Didn’t he know this wasn’t something ripped from a diary, but a crafted work? The deeper question also remained unspoken: was he shocked that I’d revealed it for all the world to read—or that I’d had the thought at all? Again, thus is the cautionary tale of memoir: people (including many book reviewers) will judge your life more than the writing of your life.

Looking back, I cut myself some slack. In my teens, my mother got sober and brought me to her AA meetings, where people shared their raw pain and the mantra was that “secrets make you sick.”

I took this to heart while studying for my MFA in my mid 20s. I rarely thought about anyone outside my family reading a future book. I could handle my mom and two brothers. Anyone else, I believed, would just have to live with it. Besides, it was Iowa, where the Workshop attracted authors like Tobias Wolff and Norman Mailer, who wrote searing nonfiction as well as fiction. Agents from NYC regularly came a courtin’.

The competition for the nonfiction folks was brutal in its own way. Sometimes our workshops felt like a literary version of Truth or Dare—everyone vying for the most exposing confession: “You think that’s intense/outrageous/wild? Well, read this!”

If you held back, others smelled it like blood in the water. “You’re just skimming the surface,” one teacher often remarked. An agent, after reading a chapter of mine, asked hopefully, “Didn’t something else happen?” When I told him no, that would make it fiction, he didn’t request more writing. It was hard to find the line between privacy and power in that environment. How could I foresee that in 10, 20 years, I’d cringe at the thought of certain passages being read by some cute writer on FB?

I suppose you’re curious about those regrets. One was an ugly thought about a man I was leaving, the kind of thing you think but don’t say. At the time it felt daring, even brave. But the pain it caused to this man, and I assume to his family, wasn’t worth it.

The other was about sex, a bit too much TMI. Did my future (ex) father-in-law need to know about my favorite position? Great Aunt Martha? The novelist on the couch halfway across the country?

If you’re going to write a memoir, be prepared for someone to say: I can’t believe you wrote that. When that impulse comes to confess, I ask three things:

  • Will it hurt someone to read this?
  • Will it make the story better?
  • And conversely, will it matter if it’s left out?

If I apply those questions to that awful confession at the end of Chapter 19, the answers are Yes, Not necessarily, and No. When it comes to the sex passage, the answers are No, Maybe, and No. The solution for both is to take out—or rewrite.

I wrote my second memoir 10 years later, and by then I was the mother of a 5-year old and going through a second divorce. Those three questions helped me navigate the painful and dramatic reasons for leaving his father. An editor did want more, so I wrote a chapter that I knew wouldn’t haunt me one day. The book was less sensational—and less successful–than it could have been, but I’m okay with that.

Now, working on my third book, at least I know that with the help of those guiding questions, I won’t lose sleep when certain people read it.

In the meantime, what happened with the fiction writer? Honestly, I’d rather not share. Not just yet.

Joelle Fraser has two published memoirs (The Territory of Men, 2002, Random House; and The Forest House, 2013, Counterpoint Press). Her essays have been published in several journals, including Crazyhorse, Pangyrus, The Hawaii Pacific Review, The Iowa Review, Zyzzyva, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Fourth Genre. She lives with her son and two rescue cats in Reno, and is working on her third memoir, NO ONE CAN FIND YOU. She teaches online at Creative Nonfiction.


§ 32 Responses to I Can’t Believe You Wrote That

  • jerrywaxler says:

    I read memoirs to learn how the author thought and felt about the chain of events. So the “what else happened” in my book would be about your own inner world. Which you answered elegantly in this article. Throughout history (and apparently to this day!) “show me more sex’ has been used as an opportunity to obscure the delicious elegant complexities of the human heart.

    Jerry Waxler
    Author of Memoir Revolution

  • It is refreshing to find someone willing to admit they made mistakes. Thank you.

  • Ralph Culver says:

    I’m reminded of a three-question precept of recovery that I’ve tried to take to heart in everyday relationships: Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said now? Does this need to be said by me?

  • Phyllis Brotherton says:

    Wow, did I need this today, as I’m in the middle of revisions. The questions are very helpful. Thank you, Joelle!

  • Love this! I will use the three questions as I go deeper into the scary places. Thanks.

  • Michele Genest says:

    Three excellent questions to keep in mind for a writer going into the second draft. Thanks for this, Joella.

  • richelle says:

    What a great take on the balancing necessary in memoir writing. I thoroughly enjoy Joelle Fraser’s writing.

  • judyreeveswriter says:

    Thank you so much for this, Joelle. Besides being so wonderfully written, the three questions are in my “keepers” file. I recently got busted by a beta reader who scratched on the margin of my ms: TMI. She was right. I was trying to show how daring I was.

  • Sharon Silver says:

    I love the rubric (right word?) for deciding whether to use something in your writing, and the fact that the key element is the last: Will it matter if it’s left out? Daring, shmaring: if the piece isn’t better for the inclusion of the Bold Confession, that’s your answer. This is an essay I’m gonna flag.

  • Oh man, talk about building suspense – I want to know about your date! 💖

    Your essay is excellent, and very timely. I’ve been wondering about sharing a story in my work that would be a 1) Big-Time YES, 2) Dubious, and 3) Maybe. Based on the first answer, I’m going to focus on some other scenes. Thank you for helping me think more objectively about that.

  • Bob Owens says:

    Outstanding work, Joelle!!

  • maddielock1955 says:

    I struggle with this every day as I re-read and revise the memoir on family that I’ve been working on for four years. After a gaff in a published essay that hurt someone close to me, I made some hard decisions as to what must be left out. Begs the question:can a silent truth be the same as an untruth? Thank you for this….

    • joellefraser says:

      I’m so for that experience–I know how that regret can feel, as you know from the essay. That’s a great question you ask, about “silent truth”…if we leave out the truth, then is that a “lie of omission”? These are not easy questions.

  • ellybones says:

    Exactly! Sex may sell, but if that’s more important than the mundane context in which it happens, the before, maybe during, and certainly after parts, well then that may be in somebody else’s book. And I will probably not buy it either, for that matter.

  • Oh, you’re such a tease! Sharing the beginning of the story, getting us hooked, invested, and then… nothing. At least not yet… When you wrote about a location halfway, my mind went to “a serial killer.” But, you’re still here, so I guess nothing of the sort.

    As far as memoirs are concerned, I’m not the biggest fan but I think the 3 questions you shared with us are very much on point.

    • joellefraser says:

      Thank you for this reply–Ha! And for your concern…Hmm, maybe a “cautionary tale” short story would be another way to go at this material.

  • CL Schwan says:

    Joelle, this is why you are such a valuable CNF instructor. You teach from experience, whether positive and negative.

  • Susan says:

    I laughed out loud at the strip poker simile. I don’t want to be shivering in my undies when everyone else is reading fully dressed, looking for where I mention them. Then I know I’ll need to answer the three questions.

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