I Acknowledge Nobody

March 4, 2021 § 29 Comments

By Suzanne Roberts

Most writers have a love/hate relationship with their book’s acknowledgements page. It’s the writer-equivalent to the 45-seconds where the actress thanks everyone under the bright lights on the Academy Awards stage, only you were probably wearing your pajamas and not a made-to-order Vera Wang gown when you compiled your own gratitude list. Even so, it’s your moment to offer thanks for those who put up with you while you were working on your book. Writing the acknowledgements also means you are nearly finished, or at least you think you are, and for those brief seconds, while you’re typing ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS, you might be delusional, but you are happy.

But when you send your manuscript off, the acknowledgements become a source of stress. Who hasn’t woken up in the middle of the night in a panic after realizing someone important was left off? After publishing six books, I believed forgetting someone was the worst of it. I never considered including someone could cause so much trouble, until it did.

In my latest book, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, I gave some backstory about my mother’s childhood; it was important for the reader to see where she came from, why she behaved in the ways she did—she was sometimes mean, but never in the abusive ways of her own parents.

Before she died, my mother read the manuscript. She knew she had veto power, as the closest people in my life do, but she hardly ever used it. She was glad I was telling her stories, though she did joke, “This is plagiarism!” When I asked what she meant, she said, “You’re stealing all my stuff.” Then she warned me that some of the family might not like what I had written about her parents.

Soon after Bad Tourist came out, I received a scolding Facebook message from my cousin, which she also posted publicly on my Facebook wall, trying “to set the record straight” about our grandparents. While I decided what to do, I blocked her so she couldn’t write more public messages. Being blocked enraged her, so she took to the internet, posting her complaints in the comment section of guest blogs and under reviews of my book. She said my book was “fabricated nonsense” and “rubbish.”

I sent her my carefully crafted response, saying “I understand your narrative is different, that the people you knew as your grandparents were different than the parents my mother grew up with, and I am sorry if this information is hurtful to you. All our narratives and our personal truths coexist and all are valid.”

She wrote back, admitting she did not know if what I had written about our grandparents was true or not, but that I had, in fact, written “lies.” She insisted I had written that she and my aunt supported the book, “throwing them under the bus.” She wrote, “Even if I said you could use my name, that’s besides the point … you never sent us a draft of this story before you published it, and you quoted in your book that family and friends had read and agreed the draft.”

I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. I went back to the chapter in question, and as I had thought, I had written no such thing. I closed my laptop and went out skiing. About a mile down the trail, I realized what she had meant: The acknowledgements page!

I had acknowledged both my cousin and my aunt as people who were “cheerleaders and confidants.” They were in the large list of people who had also read drafts of my book, giving me valuable feedback, though the sentence was clear that not everyone on that long list had read (and approved of) the book. I wrote back to my cousin, asking her to look at the actual words on the page. I said that being listed was meant to be a nice thing.

I also vowed not to include an acknowledgements page in my next book.

And I learned (or re-learned) these lessons:

  1. There’s no reason to use someone’s real name. It might seem weird to you that your husband or daughter or cousin has a different name, but most readers won’t know or won’t care (even if they know you in real life).
  2. If you use someone’s real name, make sure he or she has agreed to it in writing after reading the manuscript. If you already know they won’t approve of the material, but you’re not planning to change it, you must change the names. My cousin would have been angry with me even if I had changed her name, but her grievances would carry less weight. And if I had let her read it, and she outright disagreed with specific parts, like the recreated dialogue, I wouldn’t have changed it, but I would have let the reader know she remembered things differently than I did.
  3. Make sure whatever you’re writing is your story to tell. In this case, it was very much my story to tell. If it’s your story, you don’t need permission to tell it. If your story also happens to be a friend or family member’s story, you should get permission or risk losing the relationship. The person I needed permission from—my mother—granted it
  4. Don’t let friends and family read early drafts—ever. The parts they object to could possibly be cut in the revision process, and you’ve created trouble for yourself for nothing. Only let friends and family read the final draft (with time to change their names). And be ready to defend your writing—you are the only one with ultimate veto power.
  5. Even though you think it’s an honor, some people might not want to be listed in your acknowledgements page.

In my cousin’s last message, she wrote, “I’m sad this has happened because we did genuinely care about you … I do wish you all the best for the future.”

Losing my aunt and cousin feels like I’ve lost another piece of my mother, which makes me profoundly sad. But at the same time, wasn’t their “care” always already conditional, based on the tacit agreement to hide our family secrets?

When we write the stories we must tell, even if others would rather we kept them secret, it’s never a betrayal. The real act of violence is in the attempt to silence someone else’s voice. Anyone who genuinely cares about you, in the present tense and unconditionally, will eventually come to understand you must continue to tell your own truth.

__________________________

Suzanne Roberts is the author of Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Follow her on Instagram @suzanneroberts28.

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§ 29 Responses to I Acknowledge Nobody

  • Morgan Baker says:

    Sorry you lost your cousin and aunt. This is a good lesson- but ultimately you told your story with your mother’s blessing. I am going to share this with a class I’m teaching tonight and I want to read your book!

  • juliemcgue says:

    You make very important points and the experiences you shared are the exclamation point. Everyone needs to read this!

  • Heidi Croot says:

    Saving for the coming storm. Every one of the 5 lessons had something to say to me (I’m keen to know more about #3), and I want to frame the final paragraph. Thank you for writing this.

  • It is the great struggle to find our own truth that needs to be told while understanding that others tell the story differently. Withholding information often feels like the great betrayal. People are fond of the story they have made of their own lives and the lives of others who play even a small role in their own stories. Further, people are not always careful readers and sometimes what they think they find on the page is not at all what was written—that seems to be what happened to you. I hope you are able to thank people you want to thank in future and without this unfortunate drama and loss—another sort of betrayal.

    • Thank you. What are your questions about #3? How do we know if it’s our story? I think we know. I learned this writing my first memoir because I did tell stories that weren’t mine as a type of character development but realized they really weren’t my stories, meaning I was not at the center of them somehow, so I cut them before publication.

    • Thank you. And yes to people seeing things on the page that aren’t there! You are so right about that.

  • Jenny says:

    Helpful reminders, Suzanne, and for so many people. I revealed a family member’s suicide in an essay and worried about my cousins’ reactions. I was lucky they loved the piece.

  • lindawis says:

    Thank you for sharing this painful experience as a caution to memoir writers. I’m going to share this with my class. And as someone said, we see people not as they are, but as we are. We believe what we want about others. It’s hard to accept that.

  • Thank you for sharing this, Suzanne. We do see things differently from people we might mention in our books. I lost a family member that way, too. It never occurred to me he might object, but he did, big time, even after I made changes to placate him.

  • Love this as it’s one of the biggest fears of an author and when you have someone in your life that will find fault no matter what you do, you can’t win. Great points and I appreciate your willingness to do what was important for you to do and try to remedy it. We can’t please the challenging ones. Nice write up! 👏👏👏👏🌷 And your book looks awesome!

  • lgrizzo says:

    Wow! I’m sorry this happened to you but thankful you’ve shared your experiences with us. As I too am writing memoir, I’m going to keep this so I remember this sage advice when I’m ready to share my work with the world.

  • A very useful reminder that we “can never please everybody all of the time”, as my mother often warned. The caveat that we reveal nothing to those concerned until we are at the final draft is well heeded. I lost my sister and beloved nieces when I brought up a truth only amongst us, within the family. The pain and consequences of facing that truth was overbearing for my sister, and her daughters, protectively, went with her narrative, meaning only to love their mother. I have adjusted to the loss because speaking the truth has been life-saving and has radically altered my life.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    I like what you say here: “But at the same time, wasn’t their ‘care’ always already conditional, based on the tacit agreement to hide our family secrets?” My brother was extremely unhappy when my memoir came out (even though he’s mentioned in passing maybe twice in the entire book). I feel like the tacit understanding of our relationship was to never talk about our dad’s death, to keep our feelings hidden always. I didn’t want that kind of relationship and we have been estranged for more than eight years. But ours was never a close relationship in the first place. I am happy that the relationships that are most important to me (like with my mom and sister) are still in place.

  • mysochmyway says:

    Thank you for sharing this most important lesson- SPEAK YOUR TRUTH. It is in such times we honestly know who genuinely cares & who doesn’t.

    I am definitely going to read your book – Bad Tourist & am following you now on WordPress too.

    Until your next Soch, stay happy.

  • Best advice for all memoir-non-fiction writers. I am in the process of self-publishing my first book. This couldn’t be more timely precious. Thank you.

  • […] is no memoir-publishing without penalties. You are never going to get off scot-free. Someone you were very kind to will be unhappy anyway. Someone you didn’t even mention will be mad you left them out. People will remember things […]

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