Writing Memoir in our #MeToo Moment

As a memoirist, I’ve had to think long and hard about some of the #MeToo issues that are now buzzing around the public sphere.

When you write memoir, you generally don’t get too far before you run up against thorny questions of how much to reveal about your past, especially when telling your story means “telling on” someone else. And what if that person still has the power to strike back in some way? Or what if you still care about them and know that your public revelation will hurt them? It gets dicey, quickly.

And yet, we want to be truthful. We don’t write memoir to avoid the truth, after all. We could do that just fine in fiction. We write memoir to dive into the heart of our own experience, and tell the truth of our lives as we see it.

In my own memoir, I had to tread carefully when it came to telling the story of my marriage and divorce. Although I call What I Forgot…And Why I Remembered an environmental memoir—because it traces my path from being a total nature girl as a child, to an alienated citified intellectual young adult, and back again to a reconnection with the natural world at midlife—my long marriage, from age 26 to 47, was important to the story because I married a man even more alienated from nature than I was.

And to tell the story of my marriage was also to tell the story of my divorce. Dangerous waters, with our children peering over my shoulder and my ex still living in the same town.

I wrote many drafts of the section of the book about my divorce. Each time I went over it, I streamlined and eliminated, trying to describe what happened without sugar-coating my own hurt, anger and bitterness, but also without ranting or raging out of vindictiveness or spite.

Did I get it right? My children have yet to read the book, and if my ex has read it, he has not commented. But other readers have told me they find that section moving and true, and—most important to me—they can understand the connection I was trying to make between the way I lied to myself in the marriage and the way kept myself willfully blind in my long-term relationship with the society that is destroying our planet.

So here’s my #MeToo moment advice to memoirists:

Sharing anger and pain can be cathartic, and women, in particular, can often benefit from letting our anger out rather than keeping it bottled up inside, festering. As we have learned from the outpouring of #MeToo stories on social media, many women have stayed silent rather than air their own shame at men’s mistreatment of them. That is not a healthy silence.

But when people start playing partisan politics with the sharing of painful stories—when the sharing is used as a weapon or for personal gain—then it’s so easy to lose sight of the purpose of sharing the story to begin with; and in our Internet age, the original story can quickly be lost or distorted in the social media hall of mirrors.

I write and teach a subgenre of memoir that I call “purposeful memoir.” It’s purposeful because you know that by sharing your story, you’ll be casting light on issues that others are also struggling with; you’ll be helping others who are coming along the same path behind or alongside you.

Yes, it’s your story, and you have every right to tell it as you see it. Just be very sure, as you begin to get into the messier passages of your life—the ones that require you to tell others’ stories as they intersect with your own—that you are clear on your purpose.

The women who outed Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and so many other powerful men may have been angry, but they were also sounding the alarm for other women, trying to shine light into the dark corners of a celebrity culture riddled with sexual predators.

In daring to tell their stories, they gave courage to the many other women, from all walks of life, who began to come forward with their #MeToo stories.

Suddenly we are all talking about toxic masculinity and rape culture—terms I rarely heard outside of the women’s and gender studies courses I teach.

It’s not a small thing, purposeful memoir. This is how cultures shift, sometimes: one person dares to utter their truth in public, with such passion and purpose that others are also inspired to join in, and the lone voice becomes a chorus that can move mountains.

So I leave you with these questions: what is the truth that only you can tell, because you alone have lived it—and yet it is also a truth that others will instantly recognize because they have lived their own version of it, too? Is it possible that the sharing of this truth may set off ripples of positive change reaching far beyond your own personal orbit?

If so, you have work to do.

I’ll be here if you need me at any stage of the writing process. From my in-person workshops to my online course and writer’s guide to purposeful memoir, as well as my author coaching and manuscript review services, my aim is to help you tell your story in the most powerful, purposeful way possible.

Join me on the journey of purposeful memoir. Let’s change the world for the better, together.

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