Friday Five-O: Mock, Love, Be
“In memoir, how do I handle writing about family members and others who are still living?”
—Robert “to the” Graves
The first step to answering a question like this is admitting the truth to yourself. Write it down, it doesn’t mean anyone else has to read it. I used to question my wife about those letters her clients wrote in therapy—the ones that were addressed to someone who would never read them, or were even dead. Then I came to see the value in transferring the words to screen or paper.
You still have to get it right.
You can decide later how much goes in, which is really the question with all writing. How to handle sensitive memoir material might be answered then in the same way as the other questions we ask ourselves: Does this scene relate to the theme? Does this character change in a measurable way, or are they the person who refuses to change?
If they are—in real life as well as in your memoir—then you’ve got a whole different problem. (I assume here we are talking mostly about our difficult loves, the ones we must go on loving.)
In literature, there are three kinds of characters who don’t change:
- the stock or “flat” character, those “constructed round a single idea or quality” (E.M. Forster)
- the character we forgot to change, or forgot to help change, depending on the relationship you have with your characters
- the character who doesn’t change because they can’t
Individuals in this last category may be undone at the end of the story by their own flaws, they may be blind to a younger generation, or be unable to effectively combat their own darkness. They are the stuff of tragedy, in real life as well as in your memoir.
We read books because we want to believe that people can change. That is the most thrilling possibility we can imagine. It goes to the root of Aristotle's catharsis, being transformed by fear and pity while viewing a drama. It keeps us engrossed in narrative of all forms, including myth and religion. We want to believe that people can change. We want to believe that we can change.
If you want to show the dark side of a person known to you as they struggle toward the light, where’s the harm in that? You don’t have to wait until they die to record their efforts. If they represent (to some degree) the possibility of healing, then they probably aren’t going to mind a few specifics attached to their name.
But if they don’t ever really get it, if they show only the greatest reluctance to transform themselves, then as the old Irish saying goes, “It is death to mock a poet, death to love a poet, and death to be a poet.” Basically, it doesn’t work out well for anyone.
It is death to mock a poet because we have the power of creating history. It is death to love a poet because while we’re out setting our scores, our partners are left to wonder if we care about them or only the part of their lives that we can use. It is death to be a poet because we are left wrestling with questions such as these.
I have written in the terrible shadow of guilt and shame; I have felt the walls closing in while I desperately searched for my freedom. The question to which I came back to is not what kind of memoir am I writing, but what kind of life am I living? The genre practically demands that we move toward greater clarity and truth. Those rewards are at the same time our goal and our motivation.
Over to you,