The only thing a memoir reader knows at the outset is that the writer survived long enough to write the book. Every memoirist knows two things: readers judge memoirists as people in a way they don’t novelists; and some people depicted in the book will read it in a close and even predatory way.
Recently when I guest lectured to Alyson Latta’s online memoir class at The University of Toronto I was struck by how many students were worried about family reactions to their life stories.
One student asked, How do your family members feel about being included in your writing? Do you purposefully leave out details that they might find embarrassing or an invasion of their privacy?
The students’ concerns made me remember the big hurdle I faced in writing about friends and acquaintances in Shepherd: A Memoir. I found that some were disturbed or overly sensitive about being portrayed. It made them uncomfortable. Hence I ended up changing most of their names and identifying details in my book
In life we present ourselves to others amidst their constant feedback. Body language, words, eyes that twinkle or harden. Our micro adjustments to emotional currents are constant. We’re bred to send and receive signals. On the page, though, how do you know how you’re coming across?
I’ve been pondering this, as I do when I teach or write. But also because of recent events. In the first, I Skyped with a book group that had read my memoir. They gathered at RiverRead Books, a fine independent bookstore in downtown Binghamton, New York.
I got the sense—maybe a memoirist’s paranoia—that, like most book groups, they read mostly fiction. Which may partly explain one nice lady’s keen frustration with me as a character in the book. And look: Here’s that obtuse character is in the flesh. Or at least on the computer screen. A reckoning was in order. She wanted to know how I could have done it, ignored good sense and my wife and torn down a charming little cabin on our farm? All because I didn’t want to use farmland to build a house? When we didn’t even build the house after all?
Facing this sweet, smiling, frustrated woman, I was speechless. Her issue with me then felt so personal now. My thoughts raced. I created your love for that cabin. I created that dork who tore it down. I wanted you to be frustrated with me then.
As the Bible says, humans are “born for trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.” Literature is about trouble. You can play trouble for comedy or drama, but baby you play it.