I often hear people express a desire to write a memoir. “What aspect of your life do you want to write about?” I ask.

My friend Susan replied, “I’d like to write about growing up with an alcoholic mother, but she’s still alive. She’d kill me.”

“Really? What part of the story do you think she’d object to?” I asked. I was being a bit devilish or at least provoking, because sometimes it can be too early for the writer to approach certain subjects/life experiences – which doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try to write about them, it’s just that it may take many drafts, many re-entries into the subject, to find out what it is they want to say. But this is the purpose of memoir. In writing about what we remember we are reflecting about something significant that happened in our life and trying to do it as truthfully as possible. The fact that some members of our family may not agree with our understanding comes with the territory. My brother often reads my work and says, “Oh, no, Ruth, it wasn’t like that.” 

But what about this nagging question as to whether we should write about certain subjects at all, ever?

Judith Barrington writes in Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art that memoirist Jill Kerr Conway said that she couldn’t have written The Road from Coorain while her mother was alive. “She would have struck me dead,” said Conway. But Annie Dillard simply left out any details that might have troubled her family in An American Childhood. Teresa Jordan said that it was extremely hard to start writing about her family when she wrote, Riding the White Horse Home. “The ranching world is a very private world,” she said. “You don’t complain and you don’t tell anyone your secrets.”

All writers of memoir will agree that it is our intention, our purpose in writing about family that matters most. Writing with the goal of exposure and retaliation is always obvious to the reader. Readers don’t like it when we milk them for sympathy. They want to participate in our thoughts and insights about what happened and witness the circumstances of the situation in a well-described scene. They want to experience writers who have thought deeply and compassionately about their subject.

For now, I can only say that sometimes we must begin to write those stories that lurk within, and, if we want to write something that might resonate with others, the more truthful must be the particulars of the story – the details within the scenes and the insight of the writer. Writing – and the truth – will set you free. And, you may feel more courageous to face the family after you come to know your thoughts on the page.