THE URGE TO write about my life has always been present. I can’t remember a time when it didn’t feel completely natural to stop everything and record my thoughts. At 10, 18, 25, I wrote feverishly, sometimes at night but often — especially during my disgruntled adolescence — all throughout the day, dashing off an impression I wanted to remember or a burning resentment.
I was comforted during the publishing process by reminding myself that this was but one way of telling my life’s story.
As I got older, my taste in pens and notebooks grew more sophisticated. (I still feel properly emotional opening to the first blank page, creamy and smooth, of a fresh notebook.) But the urge to document did not subside. And so I wrote the most difficult parts of my life: my family’s harrowing experiences with addiction; my codependency; postpartum depression; alcoholism; divorce; a long, brutal relationship with an addict. At some point, I realized with exhilaration and terror that what I was writing was starting to assume — wanted to assume — the shape of a book. A memoir. I felt sick. Could I really tell all these secrets? What would the other moms at school think? More importantly, what would my own parents think? My sisters? Aunts and uncles? What would they say?
“I was supremely terrified in the months before my memoir was published,” says Eleanor Henderson, author of “Everything I Have Is Yours: A Marriage,” a book about her husband’s struggles with chronic illness and substance abuse. Henderson is also the author of two novels, including “Ten Thousand Saints,” which became a movie starring Ethan Hawke, so she was used to a certain kind of exposure. But publishing fiction hadn’t prepared her for the new feelings tethered to memoir. “I had constant thoughts of: What the hell have I done?” she says. “Did I really just tell the world, for example, that my husband was once so wasted he threw up in the elementary school parking lot?”
I know exactly what she is talking about. My memoir revealed parts of my life that were shamefully messy, including vomiting in the vicinity of elementary school–aged children. And it implicated other people. I dealt with this the best I could by communicating openly with those people, offering to let them read the finished draft before I submitted it to my editor, and agreeing with myself that, when it came to facts, I would change anything that a family member objected to. If a loved one disputed that something had taken place at all, I would take it out. (This strategy comes in part from master of the form Mary Karr’s rules for “dealing with beloveds” in her 2015 book “The Art of Memoir”: “I’d cut anything that someone just flat-out denies.”) But fortunately, that didn’t end up happening for me. I can still hear my ex’s deep sigh and first comment after reading the draft: Well, it’s all true …
Gina Frangello, author of the recent memoir “Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason,” felt less fear in the months leading up to publication, mostly because she had already shared parts of it with her nearest and dearest. Her husband is also a writer and the two are always one another’s first reader. “My daughters knew that I was writing a memoir and I kept sending them little pieces of it that they were in,” she says, “and basically saying ‘Do you want me to change anything? Are you okay with this?’” Her daughters were supportive and eventually gave a sort of blanket blessing, saying write whatever you want. Still, she says, “I knew I was going to have to write some things that were hard,” particularly things that didn’t show her and her husband in the best light. “I told him, if there’s anything you really don’t feel is okay to have in here, let me know. But because he’s a writer as well, his answer was basically, ‘I would never ask you or anyone to do that. This is your book. This is your story. It’s how you saw it and what you felt.’”
I find that beautiful, and I was similarly lucky. Those in my family who featured prominently in my book are not writers, but most are appreciators of art and they voiced encouragement, telling me to write my own story however I chose to. It helped that I had had a lot of therapy, and wasn’t writing a book in order to get a public hearing for “my side” of a story or settle any scores.
I was grateful to my family for remembering that a memoir is not the immutable truth of an entire life — especially in light of the fact that people have a tendency to treat memoirs, especially those written by women, like diaries, thinking we’ve merely published a faithful recording of events. It’s a view that not only minimizes and undermines the incredible amount of intellectual and creative work of writing — to say nothing of the emotional and psychological work — but also makes it seem like a memoir contains the whole of a life. In fact, I was comforted during the publishing process by reminding myself that this was but one way of telling my life’s story. The book presents a curated set of scenes that tells part of what happened in a few domains of my existence, and that’s all. It’s not definitive. It has to be true but it doesn’t have to be right.
“Memoir done right is an art, a made thing,” writes Mary Karr. “It’s not just raw reportage flung splat on the page. Most morally ominous: from the second you choose one event over another, you’re shaping the past’s meaning.”
Part of the fear focused on one’s family when publishing a memoir is precisely linked to what Karr speaks of: Others may disagree with the way you organized your timeline or which events you prioritized. Many may feel undue attention was focused on their actions — or just as common, anecdotally, as I have now talked to a lot of memoirists — that not enough attention was focused on them.
There’s also the fear that you’ll feel ashamed of what you put out there. Would I ever get over the shame of telling the world about my most unsavory life choices? I wondered before the book came out. But it ended up feeling good to share those things. Humility helped. In fact, it soothed me a great deal to remember that truths that seemed incendiary in my world would not be incendiary in the world. In other words: I’m not that important. My mother’s fear, for example, that she’d be judged for certain family secrets I chose to reveal, was based on the mistaken idea that everyone we ever knew would read the book. “Mom,” I said to her, “remember, most people don’t read!”
It also helped me to decide that holding onto that shame was worse for my well-being. In a recent conversation at Ball State University, Ashley C. Ford, author of the recent memoir “Somebody’s Daughter,” was asked how she works through the guilt of sharing family stories. “I don’t have any guilt about sharing,” she replied. “I don’t think that people who ask you to keep secrets are loving you in that moment … ‘You know this way that I hurt you? Never tell anyone about that because it might hurt me.’ That is not a loving request,” she said.
As Eleanor Henderson put it, “The moment the book was published, I felt a rush of validation from friends and strangers and other moms I ran into at the elementary school open house. And miraculously, the roof of my house didn’t cave in. Life goes on as it always has. I make breakfast for my kids and get the mail and clean the litter box.”
I had the same experience. In addition to feeling validated by others, I felt empowered by the simple act of truth-telling. In the time since the publication of my memoir, I have felt lighter and lighter. I think back on performances of self I would put on throughout my life, the many identities I sustained, that we all sustain, at once. I think about the intricate — exhausting! — ways I concealed parts of myself in certain contexts in order to appear as the wildest party girl or the most fun girlfriend or the smartest writer or the best mother. By writing honestly about my life, I brought those disparate threads together. Here it all is: good, bad, ugly. There is no longer anywhere to hide.
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Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a writer and editor based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Gigi Rose Gray Illustrator
Gigi Rose Gray is an illustrator and fine artist born and raised in New York City, now living in Los Angeles. She received a BFA in illustration at Parsons School of Design.