“To be of interest to me, people have to expose themselves.”
This is what Marieke Hardy, author of the collection of autobiographical stories You’ll Miss Me When I’m Dead, said last Saturday at Friendly Fire, a Melbourne Writers’ Festival event. She was of course talking about memoir and about how much of the personal lives of yourself and others you can safely reveal.
This is something I’m very concerned about at the moment. I would never want to hurt anyone I know by writing about something they consider to be private, but it’s very difficult to tell my own story without reference to the stories of those round about me. I used to be very cautious about writing about others, but gradually I’m casting off my inhibitions in favour of telling the truth. Although this is difficult for me, I can see that revealing more of my thoughts and feelings about the people and events in my life makes my writing more interesting. And ultimately I think I am exposing only myself, my own flaws and weaknesses.
Nevertheless I am constantly worried about offending people, especially when I write about humorous situations. I’d hate for the people I’ve written about to think I’m making fun when the reality is that I have the utmost respect for them.
There’s no doubt that relationships can be destroyed through memoir writing. Another speaker at the event, Sloane Crosely, revealed that she had been uninvited from a wedding following something she had written in one of her books of personal essays. She admitted to exaggerating the characters a little since she was writing about them in the context of being suspected of having shat on her bathroom floor during a party.
She wouldn’t go back and change what she’d written though, stressing that “anything that happened to you, that’s true and strikes you as important” has a place in memoir.
Benjamin Law added that “Writing memoir it’s not a journalistic act. Memoir is your take on things and it’s not about getting everything right on everyone.” He gave the example of recreating dialogue when writing about events from his childhood in his book The Family Law. Of course it’s not possible to remember anyone’s exact words. The goal is to “get to some sort of emotional truth.”
Before publishing his book however, he gave his family copies of the manuscript to read and check if their memories roughly matched up with his. Hardy included in her book letters and e-mails written in response to her stories by some of the people featured.
Would I be brave enough to show people what I’d written about them if they’d come off a bit negatively? Probably not. At least, not at the moment, which makes me ask myself, do I have any business writing about these people if I’m not brave enough to show them?
Hardy’s advice was not worry about this until the editing stage. “I don’t know if I want to write thinking I don’t know if this should be there. It puts a bracket round your writing which I don’t think should be there.”