Why Honesty is Risky, Sometimes

I started my Memoir Generator class. There are 12 of us aspiring memoirists. All women identified, all pretty quirky. I have decided after our first meeting we are all hiding something. That’s why we want to write. We are trying to figure out how to unhide. 

PC: Hauke Morgenthau

We read two memoirs before the class so we could tear them apart. I don’t mean in a bad way, like a really tough movie critic- I mean we dissected them, made lists of characters and objects and places, and honed in on the authors’ strategies for effective writing. The books we read were When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (which I wrote about a few months ago) and The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham. These memoirs are both about death- the first is about the author’s battle with cancer and his understanding, as a surgeon, of exactly what is happening inside him, and the second is about the author’s father committing suicide and her family’s quest to pick up the pieces for years. Literally, years- Wickersham worked on this book for 14 years. Kalanithi died about a year after he started writing the book. 
I felt so alive in our first class, even after a long day of work, even as the sun set and the bands of gold light turned pink and purple and then darkness flooded the window outside. I love learning, and what’s more, I loved being in a room with writers interested in understanding writing as a deep spiritual, artistic process. We agreed that writing a memoir takes time, reflection, and the final product will leave out quite a lot of what we write. “Don’t think every scene you write isn’t sacred,” our instructor told us. “But don’t think it’ll all be publishable either.” I admit, that statement scares me. But I’m still willing to try the process. I have stories and people and pain to unhide. 
In this first class, I learned something crucial about telling the truth amongst my new classmates. As we delved into the character list for Wickersham’s memoir, someone asked, “Why do you think she only mentions her sister once in the whole book? That seems strange to me. We don’t even know her name.”
It did seem strange- I suddenly wondered if the author was trying to tell us that her sister wasn’t very important to this whole experience, which I found unbelievable. My sister would be, if that ever happened in my family. Before that train of thought could spiral out of control, another student responded, “her sister probably asked not to be in the book. She probably wanted to be private.”
Oh. Yes, that makes sense. I realized in my quest to begin telling my own story how difficult telling the truth is, especially to the world who doesn’t know you and the people you love. Because “the” truth is actually your own truth. We have great power in our hands (literally) when we write down the stories we tell ourselves and share them. We are exposing brokenness and pain and memory that may be locked away for good reason. Someone in my class mused, “you’ll never please everyone when you tell the truth. The truth hurts. And usually we are writing because we are hurt, or we hurt others, and we write about the people who have caused us pain or for whom we have caused pain.”
I thought about my family and our collective secrets. What will happen if I write them down and share them? Even the stories we have exposed are told in a way that everyone feels they have agency. We’ve told these stories over and over, and drafted them in a way that confirms and contributes to the greater narrative of who we are. What if my writing challenges this narrative, shatters our story of “us”?
So I begin by asking “why.” Why do I feel such an ache to tell my story, even though I risk upsetting the people closest to me? For now, the answer is that sharing my story could also put forth the beginning of an honest conversation about our shared family pain that we’ve never addressed before. Telling the truth is risky- and maybe it’s a way for me to build stronger relationships with my family. I hope the memoir process helps me unhide from my own truth, and that I learn to listen for others’ struggles in sharing theirs. 

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