Is your life story yours to tell?

I’ve always suffered from this odd inconsistency as a writer: I love reading memoirs and I  have lots of creative ideas for writing one myself, but it’s never felt acceptable to me to go there because you can’t tell your own story without involving other people.

I got round this in the memoir sections of Writing in the House of Dreams by focusing on my inner life and barely mentioning anyone in my day-to-day except my older sister, who had been dead for forty years, but it was a struggle and meant I had to leave out some of my most powerful dream experiences because they involved other family members and close friends.

I only realised this week that I’ve probably been put off writing autobiographically by a particular kind of memoir that seems to dominate the market, even having its own section in many bookshops – so-called inspirational lives, or more commonly, misery memoirs.

I’ve never actually read one of these. I don’t like the idea. Writing about traumatic childhood experiences feels like something that could be very therapeutic, but therapeutic writing is private writing for me. Therapy is about healing, and publishing this kind of book feels like something that’s more likely to put existing rifts beyond healing.

(Having said that, and in passing, this article by ghost writer, Andrew Crofts, on the excellent Authors Electric blog makes an interesting case for the misery memoir as lifting the lid on child abuse and paving the way for the current exposure of people like Jimmy Savile.)

But there are lots of different motivations for writing autobiography besides therapy or a desire for justice, and I’ve had to give some thought to those in planning my upcoming Writing Your Life workshops.

As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction and the owner of an examined life, I suspect that writing memoir may be my natural speed. It’s certainly the kind of writing I feel most alarmed by, and the things you fear almost always turn out to be your greatest opportunities.

I’ve got some ideas for telling some of the stories of my life which feel exciting and intriguing but, in the meantime, I’ve just bought a book called Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, edited by Meredith Maran. I’m hoping it’ll help me develop my thinking. I’ll let you know if it does.

Any thoughts?


12 thoughts on “Is your life story yours to tell?”

  1. I understand your fears and concerns, but the personal writing in Writing in the House of Dreams was so, so good, I wished there had been more – if you can find a way to do it, I think it could be deeply powerful. I agree with you about misery memoirs – they don’t appeal to me either.

    1. Oh Josie, thank you so much for saying that! The memoir parts in House of Dreams gave me some anxiety, which prevented me from even starting to write the book for several years. But I do think they unlocked something for me as a writer, and made me want to explore this whole new area more.

  2. Hi Jenny – I have a memoir coming out in May – the motivation for writing it was to tell a story that I hadn’t been able to read elsewhere – ie a complex one about what makes a marriage and what makes someone want to ‘move on’. I’ve learned though that memoir is a constant process of re-storying the past and that if I started writing today, the book might be completely different!

    1. Your memoir sounds really interesting, Vicky – can you give us the title? I’ve checked to see if I could preorder it in amazon, but can’t see it on your page yet.

  3. Jenny – you are a very gentle, kind person and very afraid of hurting others. Are they as afraid of hurting you? Were they?

    My thoughts, for what they’re worth –

    I think everyone has an absolute right to tell their story, their experiences, their feelings. Yes, they should acknowledge that they have a bias and that others may not have understood or felt the events in the same way.

    But if I am punched by someone (actually or metaphorically), my feelings about that are JUST as important and valid as the angry feelings that made my attacker punch me.

    So, for instance, the adult accused of beating a child says, ‘I was teaching him/her discipline – or ‘toughening them up to face real life,’ or whatever their take on the situation was. That doesn’t make the child’s view – ‘I was humliated and made to feel worthless’ – any less true.

    The adult will be very angry when the child speaks out – but that’s because the adult’s self-image or reputation is threatened. Tough. The adult and child have an equal right to be heard.

    I’m not a huge fan of ‘misery memoirs’ myself, but I will say this for them: they let the light into dark places that abusers of all stripes have a vested interest in keeping dark. That was Andrew Croft’s excellent point.

    Jenny, I may seem to be assuming that your story is one of abuse. I’m not. That’s just my example. I don’t know your story – and neither will anyone else if you don’t write it. That includes all the people with similar stories who might be helped by it, given courage, inspired, comforted.

    I’m speaking generally about abusers, whether their abuse is physical, emotional or sexual. They’re very happy to scoff at ‘misery memoirs’ because it keeps their victims quiet. They’re very happy to accuse any who speak out of exaggerating, misunderstanding, lying, insanity.

    There’s an old proverb: He who speaks the truth should be in the saddle and spurred. – Those who speak out usually meet with an angry, outraged response.

    But who does keeping it all bottled up and secret help?

    1. Thank-you for this really thoughtful and considered response, Sue. It’s made me realise just how cautious I am being. I appreciate what you say about me too – because kindness and gentleness are qualities I value highly.

  4. You should value them – they are qualities that should be valued more highly by the world. But gentleness and kindness has to be strong, or it can easily be silenced, exploited and beaten down.

  5. I think too much of anything can feel heavy and overloaded. I appreciate people who are willing to divulge themselves in order to share what others need to hear sometimes, I am not the only one who has gone through something like this. I think a combination, and balance between misery and happiness can be the best goal. There are always sad, difficult things we experience in life but there are always positive, courageous moments too. Humor is always necessary, I think, as well. Be able to make fun of yourself and let others laugh too! Good luck!

    1. Hello, Anne (I checked out your blog!) I do often include humour in both my fiction and non-fiction for children, and I’ve made a note to consider where and whether humour might work in the personal story I’d like to tell. Thank you!

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