Telling the truth is perhaps always painful—I might as well get used to it!
I am writing a memoir about my early years, my childhood up to the age of 13. Much about this time in my life has a context that is unique and consequently different from that of my contemporaries. This memoir has a place in the world of memoirs, and I want it to find that place, but it has also brought up some pain which I did not expect.
My parents were thoughtful and loving people, after all, so their behavior towards me is not an issue. I am not writing about a reprehensible or shameful experience. I am dealing with a more average pain that is both little for the world and surprisingly bigger for me.
As I have been writing this memoir, I must necessarily include much material about my parents. At one point in the story I am narrating, my parents are 30 and 31 years old. They are young people— certainly in comparison to the age at which I am writing about them—and I realize they are at the beginning of their adult lives. Knowing what will happen to them later, I’m aware that, in the present of the story, they are making decisions which will not contribute to their happiness and well-being. This, of course, makes me sad for them because I want my parents—who are good people after all—to have successful and happy lives, but I know that ahead of them lies some very difficult days that will result from their present decisions. It will produce a smaller, more difficult life than they had hoped for themselves—don’t we all want easier, larger lives?
When I say my parents made wrong decisions, I do not mean to imply that they were foolish and intemperate and not paying attention. No, in many ways, they made some of the best decisions they could, given their context. But their context was limited, and I want to shout to them across the years that they ought not to be making some of their decisions. They ought to “take the road less traveled”—and all of that, forge a new path, but my parents are not about to do that.
Their own parents, friends and relatives are supporting their decisions—either explicitly or implicitly—so their choices do not seem like bad—or unfortunate—decisions to them at all. They are young and they still believe the world will be welcoming to them—or, at least, not rejecting.
“They did the best they could.”
If I omitted the psychological and cultural factors that led them to decide as they did, I would have a story that emphasizes “they did the best they could.” If I do so however, I am omitting working on the fundamental aspect of the memoir—that is, to shed some light on the human experience. (Don’t we all, after all, stand in a darkness which we seek to dispel?) We read memoirs, after all, to learn something about what it is to be a person and how we might make better choices in our own life’s journeys.
“They did the best they could” does not feel like enough. After all, “they did the best they could” sometimes proves to be not very good. It is also sometimes a cop out a writer can indulge in rather than explore an issue.
Writing more deeply
If I write about them in psychological terms, and include something about their woundedness—their earlier trajectory in life—and simply not having the information available to them—to some extent, perhaps due to lack of education and resourcefulness, perhaps due to certain romantic bent, then I am revealing something to the world that my parents may not have wanted me to reveal, to broadcast in a memoir.
In writing this book which is clearly my memoir and not theirs but which includes much information about my parents, I feel that, to some extent, I am betraying them. Both my parents are gone now, and yet I have some loyalty to them. Isn’t it incumbent on me to preserve their privacy?
That said, I also have some loyalty to the concept that, if deeply and honestly written—that is, if my memoir explores the psychology of the experience and is faithful to articulating that experience, it can contribute to our awareness of the human condition and our ability to live creatively, positively with it. In addition, will not the reader forgive my parents their mistakes?
Since I am writing here in this post about the process of writing and not about the specifics of my parents’ lives, I will omit writing about the struggle and the decisions that they lived. Instead I will simply say that, in three years time from when they were 30 and 31, there will be a crisis in their lives. My mother will face nervous tension that is almost beyond what she can handle—but the nervous tension will not cross over into a breakdown—and she will pull through. My father is somewhat more stoic and he simply buckles down and does the work of getting through this time in his life. He will work a second job in addition to the farm work he does at our place after his first job. My mother will do more farm work, more sewing, more canning, and she too will pull through.
My mother will refer regretfully to this time for the rest of her life—but will not cross over into bitterness. She forgave the difficulty but did not forget it. I, too, will remember this as a difficult time that marked me. I will deal with this time in my parents’ lives for the rest of my own life. It is a classic case of the “sins” of the father—and the mother—visiting their children. (I hope it is not unto the seventh generation!)
To choose to omit writing about this challenge would be to omit writing about a clear negative influencer on my childhood which my parents might have averted with a few better decisions. (Again, let me emphasize that they were not foolish or neglectful people.)
Were I to decide not to write about this time, the rest of my memoir, while it would have avoided the pain of reliving this part of my story, would also be a memoir that is not truthful, and as the adage has it, “the truth will set you [me] free,” I would have missed a key opportunity in my writing experience.
I am also convinced the reader would feel the omission, and while s/he will not, of course, be able to identify the problem, a sense of something missing would permeate the story. The memoir would seem less valuable to the reader, even as the reader would not be able to put a finger on the problem.
There are days when I do not want to continue writing because I do not want to be reliving this time which is coming up in the story, but I know that writing about this experience will be a healing experience.
Like heavy baggage that one puts down and continues without, the story needs to be written and its pain put down.
I need to continue without it. I am looking forward to that time.
An acknowledged leader in the memoir-writing field, Denis is the author of the classic Turning Memories Into Memoirs / A Handbook for Writing Lifestories and is director of The memoir Network.
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