(a workshop presented at a meeting of the SE Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association in Groton, Connecticut, October 21, 2013)

People will always assume that what you write is true – whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.


We cannot know in advance what people will be offended by  – and sometimes you will be shocked. They may resent that you haven’t included them enough in your story.


Vivian Gornick – author of “The Situation and the Story” says that good writing must do two things. It must be alive on the page and it must persuade the reader that the writer is on a voyage of discovery.


Writers of all genres wrestle with putting autobiographical material in their work – and writing things in which friends and relatives might recognize themselves.


For writers who write memoir this is an especially important question.

In fiction you can use false names, new settings, or even a different ending to the story. Memoir offers no such hiding places.


With family stories, the stakes are particularly high – especially if family members are still alive. You have to make ethical and practical decisions at every stage of the writing.


You have to decide – what is yours to explore and what should be respectfully left out.


(a large part of this decision is related to what really needs to be in the story. There are some things that should be left out simply because they don’t actually contribute to the story)


Every writer has to make the determination of what is too private and how to know when enough has been said and all writers approach this control differently.


For example, Paul Austin, an emergency room physician who wrote a memoir entitled: “Something for the pain” wrote about his feelings of failure as a father because he was so driven to succeed as a physician and also the fact that he has a daughter with Down’s syndrome whose condition added immense stress to his marriage and relationship with his other children. He decided to let his wife read the manuscript before it was published and give her the opportunity to tell him what she would leave out. His fear was that he was so honest about his ambivalent feelings towards his disabled daughter that it would be very hurtful to the daughter if she could ever read it (even though he knew that would be impossible). So, he gave his wife carte blanche to take out anything she wanted. He was surprised that she eliminated nothing.


The memoirist and poet Patricia Hampl tells another story. When her first book of poems was about to be published she decided to show it to her mother who was very proud that her daughter would be a published author. When the mother read a poem about her own epilepsy and the impact that had on Patricia, she said. “You have to take that poem out.”

“But that’s the best poem in the collection”

“You cannot tell the world about this.”


Her mother had lived through a time when having epilepsy meant not being able to have a job. Hampl did not publish the poem until her mother agreed. She allowed her mother to make the decision.


People don’t always behave as you might expect them to: Paul Lisicky

said that after his memoir was published in which he reduced the presence of his demanding and complicated aunt to just an affectionately drawn anecdote – she responded by being outraged that she was cast as a minor character.


It’s difficult to know how or what people will respond to. Some writers have described becoming closer to family members after publishing a true, but terrible experience – like incest. Sometimes people will communicate in different ways – but most writers who have gone through this say that people largely continue to be themselves; just more intensely. Warm alliances will be strengthened; angry people will lash out; relationships that weren’t really functional will fall quietly away.


When I wrote an essay about my experience of growing up with a brother who became homosexual, I expected my older brother to balk at me sharing such personal things about my life – our life even though my younger brother has been dead for 25 years. But, instead, his reaction was totally different. He said “gee Ruth, this is written really well – but, you got it all wrong. It wasn’t like that”


What wasn’t like that?


Oh that part when you wrote about Sam running off in G Fox. He took off for the toy dept, not the luggage dept.


The essayist, Dinty Moore, says that autobiographical writing helps us find clarity and understanding of the past. He says that the straightforward telling of family stories has value because more people have been harmed over time by secrets and concealment than by candor and revelation.


But this is where diligence in the craft of writing comes in: Stories, essays and memoir that reveals true life stories have to go through the acid test. Everything that is in there must be there because it helps to tell the story and makes sense for the reader. It is not there merely because it happened.


During the first drafts of a piece – put everything down. Then, when you go back over it again and again, you have to use what Hemmingway called the bullshit meter. Eliminate the stuff that you might be in love with but is not necessary in the telling.


If you can’t figure it out – have someone else read it. Put it away for days or even weeks – usually that helps to reveal what you’re really writing about.


Ask yourself these questions:


Is this absolutely true?


Do you really need to write about this?


Are you carrying a hatchet? Is there someone for whom you still harbor a grudge? Do you still feel a discomfort with the person that you can’t dissociate from or figure out?


Are you sure you have a comfortable distance to write about this? This is usually revealed after you have a first second or third draft.


What questions are you trying to answer in this work?


Probably the most important thing to remember as a writer is that you have choice. We can’t control what’s happened in our lives but we can choose how we write about it.