Some people are born with silver spoons in their mouths, yours truly a stubby pencil with a well-chewed eraser end. So, the writing habit, or pushing ink, began early via an assorted collection of diaries and notebooks.
The interesting thing about diaries, and an early lack of creativity, most entries were a single mysterious line of “something happened today.” There was no clue as to what happened. It could have been a skinned knee, a fight with a school chum, or alien abduction.
Eventually, childhood diaries were replaced with college-ruled notebooks filled with detailed entries. I suppose it makes sense given their utility. Those pink, puffy-cover diaries with quick-to-rust gold locks and a key that always went missing could not handle anything beyond one-liners. Plus, who needs security when your handwriting is illegible?
I would periodically peruse the material, scratch my head over the diary entries, but otherwise did not give them much thought. Then one day, in my early twenties, I was compelled to burn it all. A glorious backyard bonfire ensued in what I now refer to as The Great Burr (Up An Unmentionable Location). I broke out the marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate, and watched years of writing turn to ash. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I made a mistake.
Flash forward near two decades with a blog, columns, notebooks, and newspaper stories kept well away from impromptu s’mores parties. I learned my lesson and used the material to write two books over the last few years. Only now, it may as well be kindling given the work sits collecting dust. There’s just something about being an impromptu memoirist that’s unsettling. It is a torn reality if you will that only a recent comment can best exemplify.
It was about a week ago when someone said to me, “I learned a lot about you this weekend.” And, as a naturally guilt-minded individual, I began to panic. Did someone steal my laptop, the books now out into the void, and out of my control? Did Zuckerberg build that mind-reading tech a whole lot faster than expected?
Suddenly I was worried about privacy. Ironic, as a memoirist is meant to give up some privacy. They are supposed to share cautionary tales of one’s mistakes, love and loss, and perhaps the misadventures and humor-laden episodes that compose life. However, I can’t seem to take it to the next level, to move beyond worry and fear into publication. I am not even sure what spurred me to write memoirs in the first place. Perhaps it was Marion Winik, a professor, journalist, columnist, and author. Her memoir, First Comes Love, revolves around a complicated marriage to a man who died of AIDS in the mid-90s. Winik captures life in all its rawness with an unflinching ability to share some of life’s most crushing blows.
In 2013, after the publication of another fantastic memoir, Highs in the Low Fifties, Winik shared some tips in Writer’s Digest magazine. What caught my eye right away was tip number four – don’t spring surprises on your friends.
Winik tracks down every person she writes about to make sure they are OK with it, but who warrants tracking down? Does one locate a former elementary classmate with a one-line mention? I have the unsettling vision of yours truly on a doorstep, unannounced. A stranger with a wide smile, slightly crazed look in the eye, a single page clutched in one hand and a stubby pencil in the other.
Anne Lamott, in her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, has an entirely different viewpoint on memoirs. She writes: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Ouch! Who hurt you, Lamott?
Then there is Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, on growing up Mormon in Utah and, well, uneducated only to go to college and earn a Ph.D. in history. She did not consult her friends, and certainly not her family, as evident by her parents’ social media dismay on their representation in the book.
Westover now lives outside the country, perhaps a few times removed from the family tree.
I looked to J.D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, but there are no mentions of awkward familial or friend strife after publication. No worry about hurting someone’s feelings or being kicked off the family tree.
All these things (and more) ran through my head in the few seconds it took for someone to say, “I learned a lot about you this weekend.” I was near to twitching, a convulsing guilt-riddled puddle on the floor when the climactic moment arrived … with an absolute thud.
“I read your column,” continued the individual.
Oh, whew! My stories on skinned knees, the fights with school chums, and alien abduction are safe for another day.