Who Deserves the Truth?

March 2, 2021 § 25 Comments

Like this, but plummeting

When I was a circus aerialist, my act finished with a dramatic upside-down slide, dropping 16 feet head-downwards before catching in the aerial fabric, my skull inches from the ground. It was a crowd-pleaser, and it required more technique and timing than sheer strength, so it was a good trick for the end of a tiring show. The only problem was, the back of my knee was the “brakes.” Squeezing hard on the fabric with my upper calf kept me from concussion, but it also gave me rope-burn.

I did it anyway. It was the best trick I had, the one that made audiences clap and put money in the hat at the end of the show. The raw skin was usually worth it. But sometimes, when sticky humidity told me “this one’s gonna be bad,” I’d look at the audience and judge their enthusiasm, their involvement in the show so far, and think, Have they earned this? Do I want to give them this much?

I face the same challenge as a memoirist. When I break out a particularly intense story, or share deep vulnerability on the page, I go full out. But I temper my words in subsequent drafts, gauging how personal I want to be based on the readers I’m hoping for. That’s easy enough to do for an essay or an Instagram caption; I can start later in the story or end earlier, leave some details out, put some mitigating circumstances in. I have some control over how far the story goes, where I submit it, who will see it on which social media.

Adjusting memoir-pain tolerance is much harder for a book. The writing process lasts longer; the potential audience is bigger. Our relatives and friends may treat a book with more weight than a Facebook status.

I’ve had editorial clients ask, “Should I just make this a novel?”

Usually, no.

Novels need complete dramatic arcs, compelling characters, and an ability to fully embrace new scenes or plot elements. “What actually happened” isn’t always believable as fiction. The more gripping the story, the less it may resemble your story.

For novelists, the craft of writing is as important as the story itself. Sure, some average writing makes the bestseller lists, but usually because the story has powerfully hooked the public. Novels based on the author’s experience draw from life, but approach the subject from another point of view, or with a better ending, or happening to different people. Write your novel because you want to write a novel, not to hide from your own story.

Memoirs are elevated by truth. Readers can forgive an arc that doesn’t quite resolve when they’re thinking about the real-person protagonist. Decent-to-good writing becomes gripping when you’re telling the truth. Plenty of memoirists are also incredible writers. Plenty of memoirs-in-progress are not yet excellent writing. How much time do you want to spend “becoming a great writer” versus “becoming a good writer, learning about myself, and getting my story into the world”?

I’ve had clients ask, “Could I use a pen name?”

Usually, no.

Memoirs sell on topic and name recognition. The less recognizable you are, the more powerful your topic must be. If you’re writing about your week in Bin Laden’s bunker, or your high-class Manhattan escort days, or your Secret Service career, sure, use a pen name (and lawyer up!). But if you’re trying to avoid social fallout, don’t bother. You’d have to start establishing that fake person’s publication record and online presence now, and your family is going to find out eventually anyway. Why sacrifice your existing network to temporarily hide, while also sabotaging your ability to sell your own book?

Put the effort of re-visioning your life as fiction into cultivating positive relationships with your readers and your fellow writers. Skip building a fake person to promote this bookinstead, build your own courage and your support network. Part of publishing memoir is standing up for your own story. If you’re not ready to share it as yourself, you probably aren’t ready to share it at all. Keep writing and publish later.

Writing good memoir hurts, because good memoir pokes old wounds. Publishing memoir means knowing ahead of time you’re going to inflict pain on yourself, and choosing to share your story anyway. The pain becomes a badge of power, a sign that silence doesn’t control your story. That you’re strong enough to tell. You trust your readers to listen. You give readers hope, you’re not the only one this happened to—one day, you’ll be strong enough to tell your story, too.

When I did my rope-burn aerial trick, sometimes the audience had earned it with their laughter and applause. Sometimes they hadn’t, and I ended with something less dramatic but without physical pain. But more times than not, I did the trick for me. Because I could. After about 4 years, the back of my leg scarred over. No more rope burn. I’d leaned into the pain so many times it couldn’t hurt me anymore.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Wondering how much pain your memoir can take? Register now for Writing Memoir Without Fear: Avoiding Legal Issues, Trauma and Your Mom’s Hurt Feelings March 10 at 1PM Eastern (recording available).

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§ 25 Responses to Who Deserves the Truth?

  • Brilliant. But sad too that the standard for writing memoir is lower? I have read great writing coming from a selfish memoirist and shuddered every time that book was praised, but poor to indifferent writing getting a pass just because it’s a “true story”? I’m not certain I can agree.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      I don’t think it’s that the standard is lower, but that the writing is elevated by truth in a way that novelists must gin up with craft, if that makes sense? There’s still a base level of craft we all have to reach 🙂

      • “Elevated by truth”? I love this sentiment and certainly it reads true for the best of nonfiction. But still, I feel this provides no relief to the writer of memoir, which is, if anything, more difficult, more demanding because the author is personally involved and, as my dad would have said, “has a dog in that race.”

        Art and voice and all the rest are required for any writing to be elevated; in memoir, add the demand to be true, accurate, and fair. How often have writers been told by a skeptical reader: “I don’t believe that.” Responding that “but it happened just that way!” does us no good at all. It is so much easier to make things up, to provide the completely believable fabrication. And readers have often been fooled by a writer as given to invention as truth.

        Perhaps some readers do not mind reading embroidered or created stories masquerading as nonfiction? For them, the label provides all they require to believe. But speaking personally and only for myself, memoir is the greatest challenge because of the tightrope it must walk between the “creative” and the “nonfiction.”

        None of this alters the fact that your essay is brilliant, as always. Beautifully written and truthful.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Jan do I have your email? I don’t think you’re on FB?

      • Hi Allison. Anyone can find my contact info on my blog. I left Facebook two years ago—had nearly 1500 “friends” but it was wearing me out! But yes, I think you do have my email on your mailing list—more than one. As always, I write too much.

  • So much wisdom, as always, Allison. Thank you.

  • Love it all but maybe this part the best: “Publishing memoir means knowing ahead of time you’re going to inflict pain on yourself, and choosing to share your story anyway. The pain becomes a badge of power, a sign that silence doesn’t control your story. That you’re strong enough to tell. You trust your readers to listen. You give readers hope, you’re not the only one this happened to—one day, you’ll be strong enough to tell your story, too.”

    • Casey Mulligan Walsh says:

      Just the passage I came here to quote. Though getting our painful experiences on the page can hurt from time to time (I’m thinking of one particularly difficult weekend when I allowed myself to momentarily un-forgive everyone I’d forgiven 20
      years earlier), in the end it’s been empowering and freeing in the best way, especially when it’s helped others see their own lived experiences differently. Wonderful piece as always, Allison.

      • Allison K Williams says:

        So glad you like it Casey – and you should write about “un-forgiving” because that sounds fascinating!!!

    • Allison K Williams says:

      I think it’s also what helps memoir transform the author ❤

  • Mohan Ranga Rao says:

    Got quite a few pointers that will help me polish up my ongoing personal memoir. Thank you Allison..

  • Love this article, on so many levels. Thanks, Allison! Looking forward to your upcoming seminar.

  • dwilliams says:

    I liked this essay a lot and weirdly I just read a little iinterview with Chanel Miller who quotes (of course) Oprah as saying “keep your strength,” as a way to confront challenges: drawing on what’s inside and keeping it in reserve as you move forward. I think that’s what this essay reminds me of: the need to know our strengths — and know our strength is there to sustain us.

  • Allison, you’re a gift to the writing community. Thanks so much for sharing yet another powerful post. Sending you all my love and admiration!

  • Great article—and beautifully written. Many times, I’ve had people suggest I rewrite my memoir as fiction so it will be easier to get an agent. That option doesn’t sit right with me for the reasons you mention in this article. I know it will find where it belongs eventually!

  • Leslie Stack says:

    “I’d leaned into the pain so many times, it couldn’t hurt me anymore.” How many things can that be applied to? I wish I had started my memoir years ago when memories were fresher and then just not published it. Write it anyway. Through the years, when I have offered something positive to someone and have been squashed or worse, I have to remember not to offer pearls to swine, but then I have hope and offer it again.

  • Barb Knowles says:

    I agree with you completely. But having said that…how about an a.k.a?

  • Sara Dovre Wudali says:

    Amazing piece, Allison.

  • I love this so much!

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