Holding Back the Truth in Your Memoir

“I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity, self-doubt…. we have to know all we can about each other and we have to be willing to go naked.”

–May Sarton

Wow, going around naked! Gulp! (Better hit the gym!)

But, I guess you get the idea–psychologically and emotionally naked. Your memoir needs to tell the truth about life–yours–and sometimes that requires exposing yourself getting “naked.”

I would like to change the metaphor a bit, to use a metaphor that is less startling but very graphic nonetheless. It is the metaphor of the kernels at the bottom of the popcorn bowl.

I love popcorn and enjoy eating it but there always comes a moment when I get to the bottom of the bowl and the plethora of corn kernels that have been popped into delightful puffy bites gives way to the hard half-popped or not-popped-at-all kernels. These are not fun to eat. Disappointed, I walk to the trash and throw the kernels away.

A memoir is best written when it contains only fully-popped truths. By that, I mean that you need to get to what’s hidden and unspoken in your life. Ironically, what makes for the best autobiography also makes for the hardest to write—and the most intimidating. How did you feel when you read a memoir and then learned the writer omited to speak about his or her marriage or work life or handicap and so there is a big hole in the story. It’s safe writing but also begins to be worthless. The reader can sense there is something off, something empty there.

Let’s say you had a major illness and your spouse simply opted out and was unavailable to you. S/he was not able to understand what was going on because of her/his issues. You can write this memoir as if your spouse had been a great help or you can write it as if you had no spouse. Both of these are “unpopped” versions of your story. But, writing the truth about your spouse, as hard as it may be, will make for a memoir that can be very useful to a reader in the same situation—and the realness of the experience, the authenticity of the life lived will come through.

If your spouse was “not there,” how did you deal with the loneliness that must have ensued? How did you deal with the logistics of taking care of yourself if your spouse was mentally absent? And, how did this affect your relationship afterwards?

It’s easy to see that the answers to these questions are the very material that will make your memoir unique and authentic.

If one of the main values of memoir for the reader (in addition to entertainment) is its mentoring ability, then the memoir that does not dare tell the truth is possibly vapid—certainly, it cannot mentor. I think people are fascinated by the memoir genre because it gives them a glimpse into the human condition. If that glimpse is fuzzy or distorted, then of what value is the posturing that is trying to pass itself off as truth?

Here I am not suggesting that you tell cruel things about other people. I am not suggesting you tell things that were told you in secret, nor things that will get you in legal trouble if you shared them.

I am talking about the deeper truth that gives meaning and depth to a story, the truth that will pop your story open.

What would happen if you truly were willing to go about naked in your writing?


Exercise

1. What have you left out of your memoir that you are afraid to tell because you are afraid of what someone might say?

2. What would happen if you told the truth about your topic? Would the world end?

3. Giving yourself permission not to share your writing, write a story that contains the whole truth of your experience. Put the piece away for at least a week. A week later: reread your piece. Is making this truth public possible?

4. Show the piece to someone who is familiar with you. Ask her/him, what is missing from the whole truth of the story?

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About Denis Ledoux

Denis Ledoux began helping people to turn their memories into memoirs in 1988. Denis was named Lifewriting Professional of the Year by the Association of Personal Historians in 1996. Today, Denis is a writer, educator, teacher, autobiography co-author, memoir-writing coach, editor and publisher. He directs The Memoir Network, an international group of memoir professionals who use his method and materials to help people write lifestories. Denis also offers writing tele-classes and leads memoir writing tele-groups.
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