That’s not to say there are no ethics to the memoir or that we are allowed by the genre’s necessary disclosures to be cavalier or cruel. But it does imply a certain ruthlessness, which the memoirist must apply to him or herself as much as anyone. Memoir is not about revenge, but it is about revelation . . . – David L. Ulin
I got the call on a weekday morning (it could have been a Tuesday). Her voice was even, as usual. “He’s on the couch. He’s been there all night in the fetal position, trying to figure out how to position his truck on the train track so that it will look like an accident.” She didn’t want me to come. “No, stay at school” – I was a junior in college. “We’re on our way to see a psychiatrist now.”
This is how I learned about my father’s severe depression.
My father is a private person. He doesn’t share his life easily – just the idea of Facebook makes him nervous – and yet, when I wrote about my struggle in my essay “Working Wood,” he read it . . . and liked it. Because, see, I wrote about my experience with his illness. I didn’t try to tell his story – I just told my own.
This is the way of all memoir. The only story we can honestly tell is the one we know in our own heads. And yet, of course, our stories weave into the stories of others, and so we must be aware. We must know – as Ulin says, “to accept that by pursuing family stories, we are always co-opting those we love, compromising their privacy as we compromise our own.” This is an acceptable thing, a good thing even. We are allowed to tell any story that affects us, as long as we acknowledge that these same stories also affect other people.
When we silence ourselves because other people are involved in our stories, we not only deny our own truth but in a very real way we are saying that other people do not affect us, that their love or their loathing or their indifference has not shaped our lives. When we pretend that we can only write stories that affect us, we either don’t write at all, or we act as if we live solitary lives untouched by others. This is, of course, a lie. We are all intertwined, and thus, our stories are interwoven, too. I can only tell my story, but that tale will necessarily tie in my family, my friends, and even the incidental people I meet at the Food Lion on a Monday night.
Of course, as Ulin also says, we are not to be brazen or heartless in our writing – our goal is not revenge or setting the record straight – it’s discovery, a journey to find what we feel and know and, thus, believe. Writing is like a great conversation with a dear friend – it allows me to find my path to some understanding. When we say we can’t write about something because it involves someone else, we are isolating ourselves with that experience, and that isolation can be very painful.
Every writer has to determine our choices, of course – the subjects we can take on, the ones we aren’t ready to tackle yet, the stories that will – as fairly as we tell them – hurt relationships we cannot bear to lose. There is no formula for what we should or should not share.
Yet, if we want to share, we do no wrong if we are honest and truthful to our own memories and if we know that these stories are just one of the many parallel threads that go through a single experience. For it may be in the telling that we find a new path through.
My father is sick again, sick enough to be on the couch in the fetal position. It terrifies me. Yet, I have written this story before, the one where I acknowledge all the ignorant things I said, the one where I learn to stand by, to be close, to let him lean. I have learned this story, and even in my fear, there is peace. I know his story, and I know how to tell my own.
What do you think of the idea that memoirists need to be a little ruthless about telling stories?