I’m often asked why people who profess to dislike reading buy memoirs, and the answer always seems so obvious to me.
As children, we devour the stories our parents tell us and even fashion our own fantasies around the stories’ protagonists. As adults, however, we become more skeptical and it’s more difficult to sit through a tome about wizards and alternate realities. Yet we still crave stories for inspiration—after all, who doesn’t have his strength and resolve tested on a fairly regular basis?
I think that’s why we turn to the memoir. In those books, we can read about everyday people who are confronted with life’s obstacles and come out all the better for the test In these narrators we find our strengths, and we can put our lives into perspective.
If you feel you have a true story to tell that illuminates life and relationships and all that rigmarole, write it. But just as you wouldn’t sit down to write a novel without some kind of plan (unless you didn’t want to finish what you started), you shouldn’t sit down to write a memoir without a plan either. To write a memoir, you must go into your project with your eyes open, because, to butcher a Bette Davis quote, a memoir isn’t for sissies. You will have to relive your personal tragedies and struggles, and then put that strife into words.
This leads us to the Memoirist’s Dilemma. Everyone who considers writing a memoir suffers from it. Finding the story in your life that needs to be told isn’t the real predicament (the stories find you), and neither is getting the words on paper—that’s a dilemma all writers, not just memoir writers, face. The real dilemma all memoirists must address is whether to tell their stories in the first place. And the answer isn’t necessarily as easy as you may think.
Let me give you an anecdote to frame my story: When I was a child and my grandmother said or did something publicly that embarrassed my grandfather he’d say, “You always have to advertise.” It became his refrain, and since my grandmother took pleasure in embarrassing my grandfather, he used it often. I don’t remember the first time I heard him say it, but I do remember it was long before my grandmother adapted and twisted the phrase to suit her own purposes. For when I was a highly troubled teenager (think Holden Caulfield with a pronounced Jewfro), she would say, “Stop advertising our shame to the neighbors.”
I share this piece of Rothschild family trivia with you for two reasons. The first is that I had forgotten these catchphrases that so encompass my grandparent’s relationship with each other—and my relationship with them for that matter—until after I had completed the memoir describing my life with them. This alone might suggest one aspect of a memoir’s challenges: You can’t say everything that happened because you might not remember everything. And the second reason is that every time anyone asks what my grandparents would have said about my memoir Dumbfounded, I remember their voices delivering these refrains and I wonder if I did the right thing by advertising our family’s dysfunction to the world. This is what I think of as the true memoirist’s dilemma: Does the memoirist have the right to tell his or her story when it involves other people?
As a memoirist, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about truth and how it plays into my work. That might surprise some given the recent batch of memoir scandals, but I think we can all agree that few of us don’t know the difference between lying and telling the truth. I know there are readers and writers who take a very conservative view and proclaim that the memoirist’s “tricks” (composite characters, asynchronous chronology, imaginatively recreated dialog) hurt nonfiction and are better utilized in fiction. I don’t subscribe to that opinion.
Even before I spent time thinking about legality and liable, I knew I would have to change names and alter characteristics. I did not live my life in a vacuum, and while I do not damn anyone in my book, I do explore some rather unfortunate events. Changing names and using composite characters has allowed me the opportunity to write what I remember but to protect the identity of those who may have made some mistakes in their past, but who don’t deserve to be beaten over the head by those mistakes some 20 years later.
Admittedly, I felt pretty good about protecting identities. What I didn’t count on, though, was that I would come to wonder if that was enough. Now we come back to my grandfather’s refrain about advertising. I guess it was just about a month after the manuscript had been accepted and approved by my editor and then vetted by the Random House legal team when I awoke to the sound of my grandfather’s voice. It was soft and gentle, just as it had been in real life, but it was his nonetheless saying, “You always have to advertise.” I sat up in bed and looked at the clock; it was four in the morning. Until that point, I hadn’t really thought of what my grandparents would have said about my writing a book about my family. The book was about me growing up with them (they were the only real parents I had ever had), and I hadn’t thought what their reactions might be. Had I made a mistake?
When I shared these fears with some friends they told me that I was being foolish. “It’s obvious that you loved your grandparents in the book. They come off better than anyone else,” said one friend. Another said, “Your grandmother carries the whole book!”
And while that was reassuring—that and all of the reviews which suggested that I painted a very even portrayal of my grandparents and was harshest on myself in the book—would I have written something different if I’d had these fears I began before writing it.
After the book was published, I spoke with a writer who called me brave. She said, “I would never have had the guts to write what you did, But I didn’t createDumbfounded to be a tool for recrimination or blame. I just wanted to tell my story. And if you are compelled to tell yours, a memoir may be just the way to put your life in perspective.
Matt Rothschild is the author of the memoir Dumbfounded.