March 4, 2021 § 28 Comments
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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
December 8, 2020 § 25 Comments
When I was working on my book, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, I was writing for my younger self and to other young women like me, or like I had been—women in their twenties and early thirties, who are in the process of finding themselves, of becoming. I wanted my book to function as a guide, or rather an anti-guidebook of sorts, a map of what not to do. I wanted these young women to see the mistakes I had made, so they wouldn’t need to the same ones themselves.
My advanced reader copies went out, and even though I shouldn’t have, I wanted to see how people were responding, so I looked at Goodreads. Other writers told me not to. They said, “Goodreads is for readers, not writers.” One writer told me that what readers think of my book is none of my business.
They were right, of course. But I thought, I’m a reader, too!
There were a number of reviews that didn’t like that the essays aren’t arranged in chronological order. A few men didn’t like my narrator, which was to be expected because I was writing about a woman trying to get out from underneath the male gaze and learning to be the subject of her own desire. Any story that subverts the patriarchal order is bound to be met with a bit of disdain—I counted this as a win.
What I wasn’t expecting was the vitriol from young women—not all young women, of course, but some of them hated the book and seemed especially mad at me for writing it. One young woman wrote a 1,200 word-review, twice as long as this post. These women, the very ones I thought I was penning a love letter to, were very passionate, indeed, but in their anger.
One young woman wondered if my younger self really did all those “stupid things” or if I was just “making it up” to sell books. Let me be clear: I wasn’t making it up. And yes, I really was that stupid.
Certainly, I could have just written a terrible book with an asshole narrator.
But I wondered why they would finish the book if they hated it (and me) so much and then take to Goodreads and spend a lot more time thinking and writing about a book they couldn’t stand.
During this same time, middle-aged and much older women started writing to me, gushing about how much they loved the book. They saw their younger selves, their own missteps, and they said that though they may not want to admit it, they could relate. They thanked me for putting their struggles into words. The mirror I held up to them showed their much younger selves and the ways that they had reckoned with their mistakes, helping them grow into the powerful women they now were.
I went back and noticed in the negative reviews, readers wrote more about themselves and their experiences in relation to the book. My book, it seemed, had held a mirror up to the reader, and some of these young women didn’t like what they saw.
I often tell my students to think about their audience, and I still think that’s good advice. Write to a specific someone in your mind. But now I’ll add this: you might be wrong about that specific someone, but that’s okay.
Sometimes the book is smarter than the writer. And your love letter may be unrequited, but someone else will find it, someone who needs it. And it doesn’t matter who that is, because you have done your work. You have written your book. And in the end, what the reader thinks about it is none of your business.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the travel essay collection Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press, 2020) 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. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, The Normal School, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and teaches for the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University.
December 1, 2020 § 20 Comments
The writer sitting next to me in a workshop last year was sharing excerpts from her memoir about her narcissistic mother. During our discussion of her vivid and heartbreaking prose, she blurted out, “I just want to finish my book before I die.”
My brain lit up with recognition. “That’s exactly what I always think!” I said. “I guess I’m not the only one.”
I’d found a kindred spirit, someone who grew up in an unstable family and understood the particular anxiety of wondering if you’re good enough to write a book, if you even deserve to write a book, if you can complete a book before you get run over by a truck or the world disintegrates into fiery chaos.
Because doom awaits. That’s how my psyche works. The future, to me, is precarious, unpredictable, and limited.
“Children of narcissistic parents,” writes Julie L. Hall in Psychology Today, “particularly children who are routinely devalued or scapegoated, commonly internalize feelings of vulnerability, hopelessness, and imminent threat that create a sense of foreshortened future.”
I first learned about the idea of a foreshortened future years ago from my therapist, but it’s only recently that I’ve connected it with my fear—the anxiety I usually repress and deny—that I can’t finish my book-length memoir. That’s something other people can do, “normal people,” people who aren’t fundamentally damaged.
Growing up with a mother with Borderline Personality Disorder and narcissism created in me the subconscious belief that I can screw anything up at any time. I won’t see it coming. I’ll fail at whatever I most hope for, and I won’t know exactly why, except that it’s my fault. There’s just something about me that doesn’t work right.
As Hall writes, I experience a “dissociation from [my future] and alienation from those who have confidence in living relatively long, full, and stable lives.”
How do The Normals do it? Where does that confidence even come from? It’s as if they were given a rulebook at birth teaching them how to make life work and my copy was inexplicably lost.
But I am determined not to let others see this anxiety in me. I’m afraid letting it show will give it power.
Essentially, I’m faking it until I make it. I work on myself and work on my book even with this relentless inability to imagine a future in which I succeed.
My memoir, Terrible Daughter, is about freeing myself from my parents and accepting all the parts of me: beautiful, strong, damaged, or whatever. Sometimes I feel it, that inner strength and self-belief I write about, as I dare to tell the truth about my life. I’m revealing family secrets I’m supposed to hide. It’s empowering to break the rules.
Writing the truth is a radical, artistic act that salves my psychic wounds in a unique way, like weaving together disconnected threads inside of me. I can glimpse what wholeness might feel like.
So book or no book, I’m determined to keep trying. And I know I’m not alone. I know there are other writers who share this fear, who, in their solitude, grapple with the dread of failing to write a book as well as the uncertainty inherent in the writing process itself.
Even when we feel confident, we can never be sure of how a story will end. Writing has a way of leading us to emotional places and even revelations we don’t expect. But I rely on this as a crucial part of my process: I may not see what’s coming, but what’s coming might be gratifying, even healing. All I can do is to write when I can with as much clarity and courage as I can.
I don’t have any three-step plan to eliminate the fear of a foreshortened future. Perhaps it will always be there. If so, I hope I can accept it as a part of who I am; not an enemy of my work, but a presence reminding me of all I’ve been through and accomplished so far.
I do believe that I, and all of you reading this, have a right to tell the truth. And when those moments of strength show up, I grab them and go to work.
Amy Grier earned her MFA at Lesley University. A singer and classically trained pianist, she has taught music and English in the U.S. and Japan. Amy has a master’s in East Asian Studies from Washington University in St. Louis and one in Literature and Writing from Rivier University. Her prose and poetry has appeared in Poetry East, eratio, Streetlight Magazine, xoJane, and Dream International Quarterly. Her memoir-in-progress, Terrible Daughter, is about surviving childhood with a mentally ill mother.
September 11, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Debra Gwartney
I’ve long subscribed to Phillip Lopate’s observation that a central aim of memoir is self-awareness. It’s been my aim when I write memoir, anyway. Questions that spur me on once I start shaping a narrative around my personal life go something like this: what remains unsolved in me about said thorny matter in my past? What is it that I have refused to face or acknowledge about how I acted way back when? Beating myself up over mistakes is not what I’m after—instead, I’m curious about that younger self in an earlier time. What she was up to, and why?
It strikes me, then, that some sort of exterior search—that is, a search for a missing person, or for a place infused with history, or for a particular item that rings in one’s memory—is a useful trope for this kind of self-excavation. I’m thinking, for instance, of Jane Bernstein’s stunner of a book, Bereft, in which she searches through physical and anecdotal evidence for the hidden truth about her sister’s murder. Or Michael Ondaatje’s probe through family legacy and lore in Running in the Family. Or Nina Boutsikaris’ bold investigation into her own chronic illness in I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry. The “I” on the page engages in a pursuit that frames the narrative, while the stuff of memoir (questions about identity, that is) rumbles beneath, gaining traction and depth with each page. The parallel threads—exterior search and interior— spark off each other, inform, and catalyze into dimensions of authenticity and relevancy.
D.J. Lee’s new memoir, Remote: Finding Home in the Bitterroots, is yet another example of the dual search, the outside and the inside. The book begins with news of a woman named Connie who is missing in the Bitterroot-Selway wilderness of Idaho (“If you want to disappear, you go to Idaho County,” the narrator’s mother cryptically announces in the early pages). Connie is irascible, insistent, flinty tough enough that she basically socks any peril straight in the nose. She is the wilderness ranger at Moose Creek Station, way, way into a remote Idaho landscape that is largely uninhabited by humans, one of the last bastions of true wilderness in our country.
Connie has been also, for years, an unlikely guide for Lee in her desire to spade through family history and fill in gaps that have chafed at her for years—an unlikely guide in that Connie cuts Lee no slack, and certainly does not slather her with sympathy; of course that’s exactly the no nonsense direction our narrator most needs as she forges ahead. Except now Connie cannot be located. Her absence, and the many valiant attempts to find this doyenne of the forest, weave through the book, as Lee grows more frightened for her friend and more determined to cast light on the gnarly, unburied truths about her own family. Many of these truths are related to her grandparents, who were early rangers at Moose Creek, a decades-long adventure that nourished her grandfather George but left her beloved grandmother, Esther, nearly eaten alive.
So, it’s actually a flurry of searches we find ourselves in with Remote, layer upon layer complicated by the book’s structure—not a conventional narrative with its string of chapters, but instead a series of vignettes that sizzle with subtle synapses, one to the other. Each individual piece dips into a process of discovery that Lee describes as “braided currents, their true power flowing from convergences.” It’s a form that might be called collage, though as I read the book it occurred to me that this is just how a curious mind would operate, poking around over here, and then over there, digging up this corner and then this other, until a larger picture forms, until the pieces fit together with a satisfying click. Or don’t fit together at all, because isn’t that how life is: ridiculously stubborn about dishing out easy answers.
The search for Connie serves as a frame, but it’s Lee’s search for self that quietly drives the narrative of Remote, as is true for every memoir. Well, every memoir I enjoy reading. She must visit this critical location, Moose Creek Ranger Station, of her grandparents’ legacy, and she must stay long enough and return frequently enough that the generational story can wend out of the past and into the present. Lee develops a renewed perspective on her family’s abiding connection with the Idaho wilderness, and on her years of tug-of-war with a spunky grandmother, and on her decades of tensions with her own gentle mother, and on her desire to fix family wrongs as a mother to her own daughter. These are the relationships that have tested her, shaped her over five-plus decades, and Lee realizes that she can hold tight to certain aspects of the history while finally letting go of that which has festered and ached for too long.
Which is also memoir’s turf: no matter what you devote to it, or how much you desperately want that elusive closure, there is rarely a tidy end to any search.
Debra Gwartney is the author of two book-length memoirs: Live Through This, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and I Am a Stranger Here Myself, winner of the River Teeth Nonfiction Prize. Recent work appears in The Virginia Quarterly Review and Sweet. She teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University in Oregon.
February 13, 2020 § 18 Comments
If you write, there are times you think you have a little piece of your story straight, and maybe you do. You see something, hear a few lines of a lyric, have an especially vivid dream fraught with meaning, or read a passage, and there’s a spark of recognition; a memory of something true you’d long forgotten or a nugget that had never quite made its way into your conscious mind to begin with.
You get it down as quickly as you can since sparks are, by nature, fleeting. You pencil notes into the Moleskine journal you carry with you for this very reason, or if you’re tech-driven like I am, you frantically key them into your phone. Maybe you make a voice recording to which you may listen at some future date. And when you do—listen, or read—if you’re very lucky, that ember will flare for a moment. That’s what you hope for, one tiny moment of greater illumination that lights the way to the ones that follow.
That’s what this process of writing (and of living, for that matter) is really made of: orbs of radiance strung together like so many Christmas lights, guiding your eye from one to the next, a sleight-of-mind that causes you to see only the captivating glow instead of the sizeable spaces of darkness between.
This brings me to my current struggle: writing clearly about the life and early death of my first child, Eric. It would be so much easier if I could keep it simple. I could begin with that little boy with the chubby, rosy cheeks and the freckled face (the kid on the Wheaties box, that’s what his pediatrician called him). I’d tell about the time when he was seven and, adventurous from the start, spent 10 days with a friend’s family in the Adirondacks, his first extended trip away. I’d mention his sage words of reassurance: “You know, Mom, it’s good to get away from home now and then.” There’d be his first solo flight, at 12, to visit friends in South Carolina. The older woman he’d charmed on the first leg of the journey, who insisted on introducing him to the pilot as she disembarked as “our future president.” He and his friend, John, in high school then, on their way to Stratton Mountain for a day of snowboarding, waylaid by the need to take me to the hospital for the ankle I’d broken rushing down the stairs. To say goodbye.
And so many stories more. I could do that—write them, fit them together, and call it done. But it wouldn’t be done, for so many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the story, his story, is about so much more than him. It’s about me, and it’s about his father, too. And Eric’s siblings. His friends. When you get right down to it, it’s about relationships; it touches everyone who came before him, everyone he knew, and all of us who remain. It extends even to the little ones, the nieces and nephews for whom, though they never knew him, Uncle Eric has become a mythical character. A beacon from the past.
More than that, writing memoir is larger than the stories we like to tell; it’s about the things that live within and between those bright moments. My own story is about love, optimism despite all the very good reasons to abandon hope, and the need to find a way to soldier on even when the light insists on hiding from the naked eye. But it’s about the dark, too, about the pain of watching my family crumble during a contentious divorce, of being the target of Eric’s anger when his life fell apart. Of opening the door to the policeman who’d come to tell me my son was gone.
Those vignettes I think of when crafting the scenes that made up Eric’s life are, I see now, stories of connection—and stories of leaving. The darkness between the luminescence, the negative space perception fools us into missing when we think we see the whole? Those were the moments that made the light seem to shine even more brightly. Once the radiance was gone from view, what had dwelled between the light became gradually clearer. From the minute he arrived, this boy, I was learning to let him go.
The lesson for writing (and for living) becomes clearer, too. We learn as much from the depths of a moonless night as we do from the thrill of the fireworks that light the sky.
Casey Mulligan Walsh is a retired speech-language pathologist and writer who lives with her husband in West Sand Lake, New York. Her work has appeared in Adoptive Families Magazine, the Albany Times Union, on WAMC Public Radio, and at Modern Loss and the FH Foundation. She is currently at work on a memoir, The Full Catastrophe: A Love Story. Find her at caseymulliganwalsh.com.
February 4, 2020 § 10 Comments
Around the publication, fury, backpedaling, and consistent sales of American Dirt, another issue has arisen. Who gets to tell their story? Who gets to tell it first? Who gets to tell it with the support of the publishing industry?
Publishing’s whiteness is a problem. Publishing’s classism is a problem. These barriers deprive readers of color literary experiences similar to their own, as well as denying people of privilege the opportunity of discovery of other lives without burdening our friends with “please teach me to be better, person of color!” If we don’t publish, purchase and support books from marginalized communities, we are all poorer for it.
But springing from the issue of a previously-white-identifying author’s romantic thriller poorly marketed as a defining literary and cultural experience comes another problem: seeing a story like one’s own and assuming it’s been appropriated.
Responding to the American Dirt controversy, and expanding on her personal experience as a WOC publishing and marketing her memoir, Excavation, Wendy C. Ortiz wrote in Gay Mag:
When I learned of the book My Dark Vanessa, via synopsis online it sounded so much like Excavation I thought I was going to pass out. Stephen King had blurbed it, so I knew immediately it was a book that had been given a major book deal…I felt faint with disappointment and rage. Readers of my book reached out to let me know they saw it, too. The similarity of the stories, and how the book was being marketed, were too obvious to ignore. As much as I would like to avoid a book that fictionalizes an experience I lived, it will be difficult to… It will be placed, sponsored, touted, “dementedly praised” and more, because it has to — there was a seven figure deal.
Excavation, published in 2014, is an adult woman looking back on a five-year sexual relationship that started between her eighth-grade self and her adult English teacher, and trying to reconcile the youthful feelings of “a ‘relationship’ with a man I loved” with the adult realization that the relationship was abusive and harmful.
My Dark Vanessa, just published, is a novel about a woman who “suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life?”
Gosh, that sounds familiar. In fact, it sounds a lot like…
Tiger Tiger (2011) describes the relationship between author Margaux Fragoso, then prepubescent, who meets a 51-year-old-man who “tunes into her likes and dislikes with exquisite enthusiasm, with the result that she comes to see him as a soul mate. The unwavering laser of his attention makes her feel wanted and alive. In a prologue to her [memoir], the adult Margaux writes that spending time with a paedophile ‘can be like a drug high.’ In her own case, it was a drug she was unable to give up.”
Huh. Oh, wait, maybe the one I’m thinking of is a movie?
In The Tale (2018) Jennifer Fox is in her 40s when her mother discovers an essay, written when Jennifer was 13, about a “relationship” with her adult coach. Jennifer, played by Laura Dern, dismisses her mother’s concern, but after re-reading the essay Jennifer looks back on her life. While she remembers herself being older and sophisticated, she discovers old photos showing how small and childlike she was. The movie is based on the director (Jennifer Fox)’s own life.
Or that other movie, An Education, based on Lynn Barbor’s 2003 essay for Granta, her 2009 essay for The Guardian and her memoir about being seduced by an older man at age 16, and shown the sparkling life of cosmopolitan London before realizing her ‘boyfriend’ was a married con man?
Or maybe the plots of all these women’s stories just ring true for me, because ten years ago, I looked back and thought, Maybe that 28-year-old dating 15-year-old me did not have my best interests at heart…but I’m still friends with the 45-year-old who dated 18-year-old me, so what’s the difference?
It’s (sadly) not uncommon to look back as an adult and realize a childhood/very-young-adulthood relationship we believed ourselves an active participant in was not as subject to our own volition as we thought. It’s not uncommon to feel that we gained some positive things from unequal and abusive relationships. It’s less common to write a whole book about it, but I still wouldn’t call four books and two movies in the space of ten years (off the top of my head) rare.
It is not sour grapes to advocate for representation, or even to point out that a memoir by a woman of color was a harder sell than a novel about the same subject, seven years later, by a white author. Those are valid, important and necessary concerns. But when we look for the reasons one book was more embraced by publishing than another, it’s usually not “somebody stole my life.”
As memoirists, we are constantly mining our own experience to find an original telling of a universal tale. It is not our life’s singularity, but the individuality of our voice, our approach, and our personal revelations that make our memoir new. A truly one-of-a-kind story might not even resonate with readers, because part of the value of memoir is seeing ourselves in someone else’s world. True stories change lives because they show, You’re not alone. You’re not the only one who felt like that. You’re not the only one that happened to.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Manager. Find her on Instagram for true stories that may be just like yours.
December 5, 2019 § 13 Comments
The woman at the gym combined a theatrical streak with a fun-filled manner, which matched what I wanted in a girlfriend. It was early 2004, and until recently, Jan had been married to one of the Dodgers. Finally, she agreed to have dinner with me. Until the entree arrived, we’d been talking about movies. Then, without warning, she asked, “Was your father an actor?”
“My aunt knew him,” Jan said.
“Who’s your aunt?” I asked.
When Jan told me, I dropped my fork. I’d met her aunt many times during the early 1960s, when I was in high school and her aunt and my father were having an affair. Eventually my father’s second wife learned about it, and once she did, Jan’s aunt and my father went to ground, still quietly seeing each other until my father died in 1968.
For years friends had urged me to write about my father, a character actor who’d played Philip Marlowe on the radio, appeared in dozens of TV Westerns, four Perry Masons, and movies ranging from Gilda to Guns, Girls, and Gangsters. But I balked. Following his death, I’d said almost nothing. That changed around 2000, when, slowly, I began to feature my father in essays. As I did, I wanted to connect with people in his life. A reunion with Jan’s aunt might have sorted out a lot. But that wouldn’t happen.
“My aunt died three months ago,” Jan said.
The aunt’s son agreed to sit down with me. I met him for a few minutes, but before we could arrange a long talk, he too died. I found myself chasing lives that, if not extinct, were fading fast, often just ahead of my phone call. I reached out to several of the leading ladies in my father’s campy movies. Peggy Castle, from Invasion USA (1952). Cathy O’Donnell from Terror in the Haunted House (1958). Both had died in the 1970s. Naura Hayden, my father’s love interest in The Angry Red Planet, had been single when she and my father made that 1959 sci-fi flick. Knowing my dad, I was sure they had coupled a few times. But she’d died, too.
I tried to get in touch with children of my father’s friends. One died just weeks before I tracked her down. An elementary school classmate whose dad had worked with mine met with me for an hour. We planned another get-together, but three months later, she was dead. I cried the day I learned, then cursed myself for being a slow writer. That’s also the moment I realized what happens if you wait until age seventy before starting a memoir. The people who can feed your recollections—they’re all dead.
I reached out to James Garner, star of Maverick. He was too sick to talk with me, and a couple of weeks after my phone call, he died. At least in his memoir The Garner Files, he praised my father as “the one I had the most fun working with on Maverick…He could tell a joke better than anyone, and he had a bunch of them. Never repeated himself. And he was a pro.”
Without people who can help me remember, I’ve turned to archives, press clips, school yearbooks, old newspapers, and, fortunately, the few contacts still alive. I’ve worked my memory like a bodybuilder bulking up. Anything that nurtures it, I’ve tried. Thinking in the dark. Staring at photos. Playing forgotten songs. Driving by a house. Plunging deep into Google. Eating children’s foods (Remember the Sugar Daddy? — “Lasts an hour or more…only costs a nickel”). Occasionally I’ve speculated about what a departed person would say, careful not to present my imagination as truth. Sometimes I’ve had to refocus an essay, narrowing it to what I know is factual.
At least I was lucky with Jan. Thanks to her aunt and my dad, we now call each other “cousin.” I just wish her aunt had lived to share some of her remembrances.
At a recent writing conference, an eighty-year-old started reminiscing about, of all things, the mules on her family’s farm—their names, colorings, and other details. I was losing interest until she snapped me back to attention by boasting that now, with everyone who knew her gone, “I’m free to say anything.” I hoped she was joking. The absence of guides on the road to the past hasn’t emboldened me. It’s made me nervous, because I crave recollections and corrections to strengthen my work.
At that same writers’ conference, a speaker advised memoirists, “hold off on interviewing until you’re ready.”
Not a good idea.
I recommend doing instead what they taught me when I practiced law: find witnesses as fast as possible and preserve their testimony. Witnesses have a habit of forgetting things, leaving the country, or dropping dead.
In other words, hurry up, or you’ll be too late.
To younger would-be memoirists: save your school newspapers, your homework assignments, your report cards. Save your parents’ letters, save your social media photos, save everything. Your parents, roommates, and spouses may label you eccentric thanks to all that stuff in your closet. Ignore them. Eventually you’ll be rewarded with striking details on the page.
Anthony J. Mohr’s work has appeared in, among other places, DIAGRAM, Eclectica, Hippocampus Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, Saint Ann’s Review, Superstition Review, War, Literature & The Arts, and ZYZZYVA. He has been anthologized in California Prose Directory (2013), Golden State (2017), and elsewhere. His work has received five Pushcart Prize nominations. Once upon a time, he was a member of the LA Connection, an improv theater group.
November 12, 2019 § 18 Comments
1) Don’t hide the point of your work. Let your reader know what you want to do, think you are doing. Indicate in some fashion why you want these readers along for the ride.
2) Don’t vent. A memoir should not be viewed as an opportunity to list everything you do not like, past and present. Anchor your writing to insights, not irritations.
3) Don’t write like a curmudgeon. Invite people to spend time with you through a self-effacing attitude toward the subject of your book or its audience. In general, no one really likes to sit down with a know-it-all killjoy.
4) Don’t adopt an aerial view of life. Be humble, and acknowledge that you are not an expert on everything.
5) Show empathy to all the others populating your life’s story. If someone in it annoys you, you should see it as an opportunity to deepen your tale by excavating why.
6) Don’t neglect Beta Readers. Ask a variety of people to read it, especially those who are not “the same” in terms of generation, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
7) Don’t assume everyone gets the inside joke. Be clever, by all means, but only if you are clear and contextualize. You do not want to separate readers from your life story.
8) Don’t reject growth. You write to view the world with fresh eyes. Think deeply, and know you will be a different person at the end of the writing process than at its start.
9) Don’t assume a penis or a white cis male identity gives you a right to judge others, especially women (see #5 & #6).
10) Don’t assume your reviewer—in this case, a cisgender female Gen-Xer—will be any less curmudgeonly and judgmental than you. So, for better or worse, be prepared for some readers not to embrace the writing you worked so hard to produce, edit, publish…to offer to the literary world.
Stacy E. Holden is an Associate Professor at Purdue and the author of The Politics of Food in Modern Morocco (University Press of Florida, 2009) and A Documentary History of Modern Iraq (University Press of Florida, 2012). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Indiana Voice Journal and Coldnoon. She is working on a travel memoir that reflects on her myriad experiences living in Morocco, while tracing Edith Wharton’s journey to the same country 100 years ago.
September 10, 2019 § 9 Comments
Anne Lamott’s maxim is some of the most-quoted writing advice in the memoirist world. Followed closely by: Write the book first, worry about hurt feelings later.
That doesn’t stop us from worrying our way through the first—or even final—draft.
If I write about my mom hitting me, can she sue me?
If I tell that secret, will anyone talk to me at the family reunion?
My sister told me I better not write anything about her…what if I change her name?
Yesterday on the Brevity Blog, Lisa Sellge wrote about sharing her finished manuscript with people in it, the hedging and self-protection writers do within that process. But even before the final draft, many writers fear a family explosion, resentment, or even legal action.
We can’t control how our loved (or unloved!) ones will react. We can only be as truthful as we can, allowing ourselves the distance to write from analysis as well as from emotion, showing why other people behaved as they did, as best we can tell from hindsight. It’s our choice to brace for anger from a parent or sibling, or practice verbal judo with a smooth, “I can see how the story would be different from your perspective. Let me know when you write about it.”
What if they threaten to sue? In the USA, you can sue anyone for any damn reason you want. Even if you signed a release, even a big scary release with ACCEPT ALL RISKS FOR INJURY AND/OR DEATH on it. In most American jurisdictions, no-one can sign away their right to sue. Releases provide evidence that a suit is baseless, because the signer accepted responsibility, but they don’t stop anyone from filing paperwork and demanding their day in court.
So why aren’t alcoholic parents and pedophilic religious leaders stampeding into court to bankrupt and destroy the fragile writers telling their own stories?
It’s expensive and time-consuming to pursue a civil case, and they aren’t easy to win without a phalanx of top-notch attorneys laying out extensive documentation of the kind most non-memoirists rarely preserve. Unless the suit is against an insurance company with the potential for a huge payout (as in medical malpractice, accident and wrongful-death cases), lawyers rarely take civil cases without an up-front retainer.
Say your poorly-behaving former spouse has five figures to spare and a sense of vengeance strong enough to waste every dime. First, they must lawyer-shop until they hear, “Sure, you’re not crazy at all and I’d love to take on a hard-to-prove case against someone with no money.” The lawyer must then find a judge who doesn’t laugh them out of court and agrees to consider your spouse’s hurt feelings.
If the suit actually makes it to court, the person you wrote about must prove three things:
- You lied
- You lied on purpose to hurt them
- Your story hurt them in terms of hard cash or public reputation
- The truth is always a defense against libel. Police reports. Affidavits from your friends. Photos or videos. Your convincing presence on the witness stand.
- If you accidentally didn’t tell the truth, that’s still not actionable. A plaintiff has to prove you lied on purpose or were very careless, not just that you were mistaken or have a different opinion. Memoir is inherently our opinion; it’s also worth adding caveats like “As I remember it…” or “what it felt like was…”
- Damages are meted out based on actual, provable harm. By portraying people’s behavior in interpersonal relations rather than their ability to do their job, you are unlikely to damage their finances or their reputation enough for a judge to believe they need redress. You can say your doctor cheated at golf; criticizing his medical ability could do him financial harm and he’s likely to have records to prove it.
Our final protection against being sued?
Most of us aren’t worth suing. We don’t have enough assets for a long-shot winner to take. In most jurisdictions, a lawsuit can’t take your homestead. Your homeowner’s insurance is unlikely to cover libel, so your angry relative won’t be suing them. Generally, if you have enough money to be worth suing, you can already afford your own excellent lawyer to tell you all this. If you don’t have that kind of cash, it’s almost never worth the time and money for the plaintiff or their attorney.
I am not a lawyer. This is emotional, rather than legal, advice. But emotional fallout from a published memoir is far more likely than legal action. Instead of fearing a suit, spend that time being as honest as you can on the page, letting other people’s actions show who they are and being clear about what you remember and what’s a best-guess. Read Tara Westover’s Educated to see how she honors competing stories while insisting on her own truth.
Threatening to sue is easy. Actually suing—winning—and collecting damages is pretty darn hard. Be fair, be kind, write the best book you can that tells your own true story. If someone threatens to sue, smile gently. Tell them, “I can see you feel really passionate about getting your story out there. I hope you write a book.”
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Sign up for her travel-adventure postcards at TinyLetter.
June 11, 2019 § 5 Comments
I read Dani Shapiro’s new book, Inheritance, two weeks ago. I actually devoured it. The central questions of the book propelling me along: was she Jewish or not? Who was her father? Did her parents know?
Fascinating, I thought. But this could never happen to me.
I had done 23andMe a few years ago. The information I found aligned with the stories of my life. Surprising how DNA works. I only share 49% of my DNA with my siblings. Less than I expected considering how similar we seem. My family all have this nose. It isn’t bad but it’s distinctive.
After receiving that first set of information, I mostly ignored the emails from 23andMe. But for whatever reason last week I clicked. And then clicked to see about my relationships. And then I saw it. I have a half-brother.
I knew from Inheritance the data was correct.
Deducing that my father had another child wasn’t rocket science, since he had always been the philandering parent.
I emailed my new brother through 23andMe. And then spoke to my sister, Erica. We couldn’t tell how old our new brother was, or really anything about him, save that he shared around a quarter of our genetics. Then Montana, my youngest brother, texted, “Remember that time we found out we had a brother and weren’t really surprised?”
I texted other close friends while processing. “You’re literally the fifth person I know that this has happened to.”
A friend living in Germany was shocked that this information just popped up without any counseling.
“You are well adjusted but what about the person out there who isn’t?”
Once Erica was connected to him on Facebook we could see his age. 55.
My new brother is older than me. I have something like a big brother. I’m not the oldest. I’m still the oldest. I’m processing.
We exchanged family pictures over text. I sent a link to pictures I have on my website about my memoir. An entire book about my childhood exists for my half-brother and his wife to read.
I can see a new sale on the Amazon author page. I imagine he has bought the book.
It took me thirteen years to write that well-received book. The book is my honest attempt to document what happened, when, and when possible why. My book is clear: I loved my father deeply. He was a real asshole. And he was capable of huge love. He was both. We are all both.
But as my new half-brother is introduced to me and my siblings, I don’t want him to see the warts. I want him to see the love. This is an odd feeling. I reconsider the memoir and wonder if I had, indeed, been fair? He’s the unanticipated future reader I never contemplated as I wrote the book.
When you write memoir, there are all kinds of instruction: don’t let anyone read it, let your whole family read it but don’t change things, etc. I had to pick my own way: I sent the book to my siblings before it came out. Montana read it, loved it, and offered two line edits. Erica couldn’t get through it. She cried too much. John read it long after it was published. But they all had the option. My new brother didn’t have that. Looking back, I now feel I largely wrote the book for my siblings. I considered what they would think and I made editorial changes based on how I thought they would respond. I left stories out that would be embarrassing or hurtful. However, at the end of the day, honesty was my guiding principal.
We, my four siblings and I, are a lot to take. Even for our spouses. I thank the universe or whatever you want to call it that we were all able to find partners that love us. We are funny, kind, loyal, smart, and sarcastic, with huge personalities. I can’t imagine living without them. And I can’t believe another one of us is out there.
We don’t know what will happen next. Our half-brother has had a life without our chaos. I just hope that my honest appraisal of our childhood and father doesn’t put him off joining some part of our chaos before we get to meet him.
Nicole Harkin is the author of Tilting: A Memoir and an award winning writer and natural-light photographer based in Washington, DC. Her work can be found in Thought Collection and You Are Here: The Journal of Creative Geography. She is currently working on a mystery set in Berlin.