We suffer pain for various reasons—sometimes we bring it on ourselves, sometimes it’s no one’s fault, but other times it’s the fault of another person.
If we’re writing a memoir that includes pain caused by a person or organization, we need to be cautious about our motives. And honest about our motives.
As a memoirist, avoid writing for these reasons:
- to get revenge, settle the score, retaliate,
- to humiliate a person or organization,
- to get readers to pity you,
- to get readers to take sides with you, or
- to indulge in self-pity.
Examine your heart and if you find even traces of wanting to write for any of those reasons, stop! That’s not what memoir is about.
I have two pieces of advice: (1) Go ahead and write everything, but write for your eyes only. Write about the injustices, write about your mistreatment, hurt feelings, anger, scars, and tears. Write about destroyed dreams, confusion, hopelessness.
Write it all. Write it as a prayer. Write until you know God has heard you. Write it as a way of asking God to help you forgive and move on.
Because such resolution usually takes time, set aside your private writing for a week or a month or a year. Listen for God, let Him work in your heart and mind.
Your goal is to move from anger to forgiveness, from pain to compassion.
“The marvel of Frank McCourt’s childhood is that he survived it…. The second marvel is that he was able to triumph over it in [his memoir] Angela’s Ashes, beating back the past with grace and humor and with the power of language. Those same qualities are at the heart of all the good memoirs of the 1990s….”
Zinsser mentions three such memoirs, A Drinking Life, by Pete Hamill, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, and This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff.
He continues, “Anyone might think the domestic chaos and alcoholism and violence that enveloped those writers when they were young would have long since hardened the heart…. Yet they look back with compassion…. These books…were written with love. They elevate the pain of the past with forgiveness, arriving at a larger truth about families in various stages of brokenness. There’s no self-pity, no whining, no hunger for revenge; the authors are as honest about their young selves as they are about the sins of their elders. We are not victims, they want us to know…. We have endured to tell the story without judgment and to get on with our lives….”
Zinsser offers advice to today’s memoirists: “If you use memoir to look for your own humanity and the humanity of the people who crossed your life, however much pain they caused you, readers will connect with your journey. What they won’t connect with is whining. Dispose of that anger somewhere else. Get your intention clear before you start and tell your story with integrity.” (Writing About Your Life; emphasis mine)
When you can write that way—
when you can write with compassion
and love and forgiveness,
when you can write without self-pity or whining
or revenge or being judgmental,
rewrite your rough draft.
Strive to write like Frank McCourt:
Write words full of grace, and maybe even a bit of humor.
This brings us to my other piece of advice: (2) Don’t let anyone read your manuscript until you have rewritten it.
Your first draft was for you alone,
but later drafts are for your readers.
“Ursula K. Le Guin,
when dealing with painful subjects,
makes a distinction between ‘wallowing,’
which she says she writes but does not share publicly
and ‘bearing witness,’
which she does share.”
(Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir; emphasis mine)
So rewrite. Rewrite with integrity. Delete the wallowing. Instead, bear witness. Write not as a wounded victim, but as one who has triumphed, as one who has forgiven, healed, and moved forward in a good way.