Early in my career of helping people to write their memoirs, I had a simple answer for this. “It’s your story, the way you choose to tell it,” I’d say. “I’m not a biographer or a historian. I’m not fact-checking your account. You include what you want to have as part of your story; you leave out what you don’t want included. It’s your choice.”
And for a long time, that straightforward answer seemed conclusive to me. Many of my memoir clients are strangers to me until we start working together: with no prior knowledge about their lives, I have no way of knowing what they are choosing not to tell me. I seldom even wondered if there were parts they were omitting, and was sometimes surprised to stumble upon evidence that something significant had gone unsaid, such as when a client told me all about his first wife, Karen, and his current wife, Kathy; only when a mutual acquaintance referred to Kathy as the man’s fourth wife did I realize that there were a few unaccounted-for characters missing from his narrative. And I never asked him about them, because I’m happy to let my clients decide for themselves what will and won’t be commemorated in their memoir.
But recently I’ve begun to think about this question a little differently. Now, when anyone asks me what to do about the memories they don’t want to include, I wonder to myself: Why don’t you want to include them?
This is because over the past few years, with a few dozen personal memoirs now in my portfolio, I’ve heard such a wide range of stories. Clients have told me about their first sexual experiences, substance abuse, abortions, family rifts, the suicide of a parent or spouse, lies they told, hurts they inflicted, extramarital affairs, seductions. Each story they choose to tell enhances their narrative and fleshes out their personal history.
Not everyone has the same comfort level with confessions, of course, and in some cases, the reason people find stories difficult to tell is that what happened is too sad or hurtful to relive, not because they feel guilty or morally ambivalent about what happened.
Still, I wonder how many of the people who ask me this would find that once they got started telling the easier parts of their stories, the harder parts would come more naturally. I have in fact had more than one client who led me to believe that they’d told me everything they wanted to include in their memoir, only to decide after a first draft was done that they now felt comfortable enough to tell me the parts they’d left out. So we do a second version, and that’s the one they end up presenting to their family members and friends – unless they think of still more, and then there’s a third version.
The point is, don’t let your reticence about telling some stories keep you from telling any stories. If there are parts you don’t want to include, then plan not to include them. What I have always said in answer to this question still holds true: It’s your story, the way you want to tell it. But also, don’t be surprised if your parameters shift during the telling of your memoir. As you become comfortable with the process, you might come to see that in fact every part of your past makes up who you are now, and it is that person – the cumulative character made up off all the good and bad, right and wrong, prides and embarrassments of the past – who has a story to tell.
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