#13: The Memorist's Lament: Living with What you Publish 2016
Speaking the Truth in Love, May 26, 2017
Carla Barnhill, Jennifer Grant, Margot Starbuck, and Caryn Rivadeneira—all veteran memoir authors—discuss the ethical and artistic dilemmas of the form. With the help of audience questions, the panelists reflect on sharing or not sharing early drafts, telling one’s own story without usurping others’ stories, writing about children and complicated relatives, regrets, trusting your gut, how much detail to change, pouring it all out in the first draft, cultivating inner and outer editors, and finding the driving question. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and biblical studies professor and nonfiction author Wesley Hill.
- Patricia Hampl, “Other People’s Secrets”
- Carla Barnhill, The Myth of the Perfect Mother
- Margot Starbuck, The Girl in the Orange Dress: Searching for a Father Who Does Not Fail
- Jennifer Grant,
- Love You More: The Divine Surprise of Adopting My Daughter
- MOMumental: Messy Adventures in the Art of Raising a Family
- Disquiet Time
- Wholehearted Living: 5-Minute Reflections for Modern Moms
- Mary Karr, Lit and The Art of Memoir
- Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle
- James Frey, A Million Little Pieces
- Michael Perry, Truck: A Love Story
Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [00:00:00] Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I’m Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I’ll be your host.
This is the place you can listen back to conversations we’ve had with writers and readers as we’ve celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each episode you’ll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.
Today’s episode of Rewrite Radio features a conversation between four seasoned authors who’ve written extensively about their personal lives. Carla Barnhill, Jennifer Grant, Margot Starbuck, and Caryn Rivadeneira discuss how to navigate writing about friends and family, and then living with what you’ve published.
To introduce this session, I called up Wesley Hill, an assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry. In addition to his academic writing, Wes has published two books for broader audiences: Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, and Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. Wes spoke about his own work at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing, and told me he also loved attending this panel, and listening in on the conversation.
[music, phone ringing]
Wesley Hill: [00:01:20] Hello.
Lisa: Hey Wes, it’s Lisa.
Wesley: Hey Lisa! How are you?
Lisa: Hi, I’m good, how are you?
Wesley: I’m doing all right.
Lisa: So, Wes, where did I catch you today?
Wesley: So you caught me in my home office here in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, which is right outside Pittsburgh.
Wesley: I teach at a little seminary that’s five blocks down the road and I’m here working from home today.
Lisa: Nice. What are you working on, are you in grading mode, or are you writing, or what’s up?
Wesley: Grading mode, yes. We finished our classes last week, so I’ve got a stack of papers to work through, but I’m also fiddling with a couple of writing assignments that I’m working on for myself.
Lisa: Good. That’s great. Well we’re about to listen to a panel from the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing, “The Memoirist’s Lament: Living with What You Publish,” and I don’t know if what you’re working on right now has a memoir component or not, but you have written a little bit of memoir yourself, in addition to the academic writing that you do. And I wonder what you took away from this panel, what was interesting to you about it?
Wesley: Well, yeah, I was interested in the question of how can memoir hurt the people that we write about, how can it do damage to relationships? And that’s something that I’ve wrestled with in my own writing. So I recently wrote a sort-of memoir about friendship, and I felt that in order for the book to be honest and worthwhile, I needed to talk about pain in friendship and in particular the loss of a friendship. But I knew that, to do that might definitively close the door on any future possibility of reconciliation with one friend. I really wrestled with that, so I was kind of on the edge of my seat in this panel wondering how they would answer those questions.
Lisa: What, in your experience, I mean you’d already published the book when you were listening to this panel, did you come to some sort of resolution about your decision to move forward with that? What were the guidelines that you were using and maybe continue to use when you think about where those lines are for you?
Wesley: Yeah. It’s hard. I don’t know that I have you know, a definitive rule for myself, but I did finish a draft and debated over what to do with it. I had obviously removed the person’s name, and I had worked really hard to tell how I was responding in the situation, rather than to tell my friend’s story. And that’s something that this panel that we’re going to listen to talks about, which I appreciated. I actually wrote to a memoirist that I admire and asked her advice on this, and she refused to give me a formula, which is not the most helpful. But I think the basic rule of thumb for me is, I want to write about painful subjects in a way that is dealing with my own journey, to use an overused word. My own processing of it, rather than to try to wrest the narrative from my friend, so to speak.
In preparation for this conversation that I knew we were going to have, I went and read an essay by Patricia Hampl, who is one of the great memoirists of our time, and she has this lovely essay called “Other People’s Secrets,” which is sort of the big question for memoirists, what do you do with other people’s secrets? And she opens the essay by talking about her relationship to her mother, who is epileptic. And in her first collection of poems, she had written a poem about her mother, and disguised some of the details, but she included this reference to her epilepsy. And her mother was extremely private about it and had not really told anyone. And Patricia Hampl said, she was super nervous, but she gave her this draft and she said, you know, “If you don’t want me to publish this, I won’t.” Her mother was very upset about it, but eventually agreed that it could be published.
That’s the beginning of the essay, and then she comes back at the end and she says, I just thought this was quite beautiful, maybe I’ll read you a couple sentences here, she says: “I can see now that my mother was standing up for the truth of her experience. The literal fact of it, how it jerked and twisted not only her body but her life, how it truly seized her. My poem and I, we merely fingered the thing, casually displaying it for the idle passerby. What she knows, and how she knows it, must not be taken from her.”
I was thinking about that passage in relation to my friends, and I think in some ways, they didn’t want to run the risk that my chapter was just sort of fingering or exposing a part of our community for passers-by. They wanted to actually experience their own sense of the shape of the thing. I found that interesting to reflect on especially in light of this panel.
Lisa: [00:06:28] Yeah, for sure. Part of the whole framework for the panel is thinking about that concern related to other people in your community and in your life, that being a source of potential lament. But what you’re describing can also be just true internally of one’s self, feeling like I exposed too much or I said too much, or not even just too much, but maybe I didn’t capture the fullness of the thing that I wanted to capture, and now I’m kind of pinned down by this thin representation of my experience.
Wesley: Gosh, that’s so well said. Yeah, I’ve really wrestled with that.
Lisa: Yeah, I was going to ask, is that something that you’ve struggled with in any of your autobiographical writing?
Wesley: I think so, ’cause you always have an idea in your head; at least I never feel like my prose quite measures up to what my initial vision of it was. And you do ask, have I adequately captured the complexity of this? And of course the answer is always “no” to that. But have I done some kind of justice to the many-sidedness of it, so to speak? That was, you know, to return to my friendship work, that was part of why I felt I needed to include a story of failure in friendship, because I didn’t want to present myself as some sort of exemplary friend, or that all my friends are necessarily perfect friends to me. I think trying to do justice to some of the dark sides of it was helpful, even if ultimately I felt like I didn’t do it full justice in the end.
Lisa: Wonderful thoughts. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Wesley: Well thanks, Lisa. I hope I will see you at the next Festival, if not before.
Lisa: Excellent. Talk to you later.
Wesley: All right, take care. Bye.
Lisa: [00:08:16] And now, “The Memoirist’s Lament: Living with What You Publish” from the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing.
Caryn Rivadeneira: Okay, welcome everybody. Thank you so much for coming out. I’m Caryn Rivadeneira and I will be your moderator today, so I have the fun job of getting to ask all the questions and hopefully get them to reveal some embarrassing stories and humiliating behind-the-scenes secrets and all that, maybe make them cry, I brought tissues.
But anyway, the way this is gonna go, I’ll just give you a little road map, is that we’re gonna start out, I’m gonna have each of these guys introduce themselves, they’ll say their name, give a brief explanation of their memoir, and then maybe anything else that they want to share right off the bat. Then we’re gonna go in and talk a little bit about writing in relationships, because probably most of the regrets that we have about writing memoir have to do with the people we love, at least that would be true for me. Then we’re gonna talk a little bit about truth in fiction, how much is real, what do we change; a little bit about process, and then some general advice for aspiring writers.
All through this, we would love it if you could—maybe not right in the middle of someone saying something—but if you have a question or if something strikes you as odd or weird or whatever, go ahead and shoot up a hand and we’ll see if we can get to you. Otherwise we’ll pause periodically to see if anybody has any questions.
So Carla, why don’t we start with you? I’ll pass the mic.
Carla Barnhill: And I might give it back. Well my friends, welcome. I do love a microphone. I’m Carla Barnhill. I have been in Christian publishing for about twenty years in lots of different roles, primarily as an editor. And a lot of what I’ll be saying today will be from an editorial perspective, and a book development perspective. But I did also write a book called The Myth of the Perfect Mother that was a little bit of memoir. It was a lot of my own story mixed with some other research and that kind of thing. That was my experience as sort of putting myself out there as a writer. So that’s when I refer to my book, that’s the one I’ll be talking about.
Caryn: Grab that mic, Margot?
Margot Starbuck: [00:10:32] My name is Margot Starbuck and my first book was a memoir called The Girl in the Orange Dress: Searching for a Father Who Does Not Fail. Being relinquished for adoption, adopted into a bumpy family growing up, and then finding my birth parents as a young adult and sort of the spiritual journey that went with that. The reason I’m excited about this panel is because at the Festival in 2006 I attended a memoir panel, and there were three humans—I hope they’re not in the room—because one was like, an older, sensible man who’d written a memoir, and he said, you know, of course, every chapter I ran this past my family, like why wouldn’t you? That was his process.
And the other was a young whippersnapper who, and you know it, he’d either gone from to Baptist to Catholic or Catholic to Baptist, so for your family either one of those is scandalous. And he didn’t, he sprung it on them, so they read it for the first time after it had been published, right, and it was really difficult. And the second guy was somewhere in the middle. But as a memoirist, like ooooh, that’s a tale of woe. And of course it was so helpful for me to hear both of those stories before writing my memoir.
Jennifer Grant: I love Margot’s book, by the way. She has many books, but The Girl in the Orange Dress, I think you should all write it down right now, and if you want a wonderful memoir to read, read that one.
My name is Jennifer Grant, and my first two books, similar to what Carla said describing her book, The Myth of the Perfect Mother, my first two books are Love You More: The Divine Surprise of Adopting My Daughter—I really like long subtitles, apparently—and my second book is called MOMumental: Messy Adventures in the Art of Raising a Family—I think that’s what it is?
Anyway, both of those books are memoir mixed in with other research and information, and then the next two books that I wrote, one is called Disquiet Time, and that’s an anthology of personal essays, authors reflecting on the Bible, and actually these three women are all contributors to that book. That subtitle is “Rants and Reflections by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels.” I told you I like the long subs! And then I wrote a 365 day book for women called Wholehearted Living: 5-Minute Reflections for Modern Moms, and that has a lot of personal, those are very tiny little bite-sized, but I kind of see that as a memoir told in essays in a way because they are all really personal stories in that book.
So that’s sort of my background in writing about my own life story and the people I love. And I guess, when Caryn said we could say just something general about memoir, what I would say is that it’s tricky to find—and I’m sure all of you who are working in this world know this—it’s tricky to find out how far to go and how much to keep back, because an uninteresting memoir would be one that was predictable and didn’t have anything that was upsetting or surprising or that revealed something.
However, we’re always thinking about those people we love, and not wanting to hurt them, and not wanting to create drama with them; also not wanting to tell stories that are not ours. So that’s difficult. And then add to that the fact that as writers we often figure out what we think about something by writing about it, and then we’re sort of in this really big mess of competing goals and thoughts and work, so we’ll try to unpack a little bit of that today as we’re talking about memoir. But that’s sort of where we’re going.
Caryn: [00:14:36] Yeah, and I think actually we’ll start there, because you brought up the idea of those three different memoirists having three different approaches of what you run past people. So I’d like to hear from you guys, did you share proofs, early drafts of your work with people when you thought it was important? Did you not? How did you handle that? Who would like to go?
Jennifer: Do you want me to start? Okay. My first two books, again, were about, the people that I love that I was writing about were my children primarily, and my husband. So obviously he was able to read drafts as I was writing these books, and there were stories that I thought were a little risky and I asked permission to use, and did use. But it was harder with my children because they were younger, and although I did read them and let them read passages that dealt with their own personal stories, they were really young.
Now, those same children are teenagers and young adults, and so one thing that I’ve reflected on the last few years is that, you know, asking an eight-year-old if it’s okay to tell this embarrassing story is different, ’cause if the book’s still in print when they’re eighteen, they might have different feelings about that or different experiences of that. And I don’t have a great answer for that, other than I try to be really respectful. There was a woman whose memoir I read a draft of, I think she was planning to self-publish a memoir, I don’t know whether it ever was. I think Caryn might have read this book, and I won’t disclose who it is, so I’m not telling a bad story about someone. But in her book, I took a read of it as a consultant and what I was disturbed by was that she sort of summed up each of her kids, so she would say, “Bob, he’s the codependent one.” Or “Sally, who’s always been such a winner,” you know. And I thought, oh my gosh, don’t do this, don’t put them in these categories, even if, for no other reason, for your relationship ultimately with them. And I tried to tell her that.
I think one thing that I tried to do in my books was to tell stories about the children without putting them in categories and neatly summarizing them, and trying to make them as general as possible. With stories about little kids, it’s easy sometimes to make it more general, you know, as parents of young children, many people have struggled with potty training or things like that. So those are stories that are relatable and can be interesting to other parents, and aren’t necessarily, you know, these ultimate, very vulnerable stories, so I think that’s—
Margot: That business about “my child, the codependent”—bad for that author’s relationships. But I think that also, you know, you want your reader to connect with you, and it makes it hard for me to connect with that author because I don’t quite trust them. So you want them rooting for you as the author, as the protagonist, and connected to you, and that makes it hard to do that.
As I was writing memoir of this bumpy childhood, what I had in my mind is that as I finished this first draft, I want to hand it to my adoptive father, adoptive mother, and my birth mother. And I want them, when the book is published, to feel so great about it that they will give this book to their neighbors. And I feel like that was shooting pretty high, in retrospect, but my dad’s response to draft one was “Phew. It could’ve been worse.” And birth mom, too. “Phew. Could’ve been worse.” And my adoptive mom I think was a little disappointed that she wasn’t more of a hero, and I loved hearing that at the front end so that I could be kinder and gentler, right, ’cause the way that I painted her had a lot to do with what was happening in here, and I could be more generous and was able to be with that early feedback.
Caryn: Carla, did you have something?
Carla: [00:18:40] Well I, my kids were little when I wrote, too, and when I wrote about my children, and I think this is one of the real risks that you take, is writing about children, because you have to be really careful. I always tell writers if they want to write a memoir you have to think of yourself as a character in your own story, and kind of write a little bit distanced that way. But when you start to make your children characters in your story, you really risk dehumanizing them, or taking their individuality away. Now you’ve made them props in your story. And I think it’s a really, really delicate territory.
When I wrote about my kids, and I think you guys have done this too, I try to write about them in ways that are like, these are really common things that children do. So I’m trying to not point out, “here’s my weird, weird kid,” I feel like that’s really unfair to this child. Like you said, they’re gonna be eighteen one day and I don’t want something that I wrote for my benefit to come back and hurt them.
So for me, I wrote about them a little bit in my book; it was more about my experiences as a mother, so the focus for my book was much more my own things that I was dealing with. But I did have a whole chapter in the book about depression, and while I was working on the book, I was writing about depression, and got to this point where I’m like, pretty sure I’m dealing with depression. Like I really didn’t know until I was starting to write about it. So then I was revealing this in the book and I wrote about how I realized that I have been dealing with depression at periods in my life since I was in junior high.
And, I knew that my parents would read that, and so that was something where I was like, my mother is a good, German Lutheran girl from Minnesota, and when she reads that, she’s going to think it is all her fault. And I am going to have to preempt that or it’s going to ruin her whole experience of this book. And so that was something where I took the time ahead of time to say “Mom, there’s something in this book that I need to talk to you about.” And it was actually, this is probably more than you need to know, but that was actually a really therapeutic moment for me in my own process of dealing with depression was to be able to tell my mother about it. And so it kind of served this dual purpose, but it was important for me that she not be blindsided by something, because I knew how she would take it.
So it goes against the journalistic instincts that I think a lot of us have, ’cause in journalism you don’t do that, you don’t pass the story back by your interview subject to have them tell you “This is what I want you to say about me, great!” So it goes a little bit against that instinct but I do think memoir, because it lives in such a different space in the consciousness and in the writing world, I do think you have to really think about, what is the story I’m telling about this person, what’s the worst thing that can happen, and what is the fallout of that going to be in my life and my relationship; is it going to be something we can’t recover from? Do I care if it’s something we can’t recover from? You really have to ask those questions.
And I think you also really have to ask yourself, is the purpose of this story to hurt that person? Am I writing this story about them because I want other people to see how bad they were to me? Or am I writing it because—revenge is not good, but it can happen when you’re trying to tell these stories and you find yourself kind of healing through the process of writing those stories. You have to be really cautious about your motivation for writing about those things that might be sensitive to other people.
Caryn: [00:21:57] I love that you brought up the journalism connection, ’cause right, those of us with a journalist background, that’s very true, that’s just something you don’t do. But I think what’s similar is that when people freak out about seeing a quote in print, right, “Oh I didn’t say that, I was misquoted.”
Usually they weren’t misquoted, it’s just the shock of seeing your words, you know, and you thinking kind of what you’ve said. And one of the things that I’ve had experience with a couple of times, is even when you show someone a draft, and they’re like “oh, that’s okay,” and you have a great conversation. There’s something about seeing it in a book that they envision millions of people—or hundr– tens of people, [audience laughter] depending what it is, fourteen people are reading—no, but right, in their head, it’s like everyone is reading this, and something changes I think. So have there been things that came out that even that somebody was okay, but finally they look at the book and all of the sudden you go, “I can’t believe this is in here”? Anything? I’m just curious.
Margot: I’m thinking of somebody who gave a thumbs up, and it was an infant who’d been born to my roommate who is a single mom, he was fine like at age eighteen with his name being his name, she was fine with it, and I just felt so protective of them that I changed his name, like, against her will.
Carla: Someone who I know and love well, I had shown this person a draft, “Fine, whatever,” but it was seeing it in print that all of the sudden I got a call and it began with, “How dare you?” That’s never a good, right, and it was as this person was reading through the book, and it was so innocuous, but it was really upsetting and I actually went, I don’t know if I shared it with you, but I went back to my editor, other people, and I’m like, please, is this bad? It didn’t raise a red flag for anyone, but, sometimes I think something just does happen, like people when they read their quote in the paper, there’s something that happens that people are like “Ugh!” and so it can make it a little scary going forward.
Margot: And just a quick tip, I’m collaborating with a woman now who has lots of stories, every chapter is a death, a murder, an abandonment, and she’s asked the families, can you sign off to say it’s OK that I share your story? They all sign off, and I say to her, “You have to show them the exact words. They’re not signing off on ’yes you can share my story,’ because right there’s gonna be those sentences that are difficult, painful, you really want to show them every single word.”
Jennifer: [00:24:24] Yeah I agree. I don’t have an example that fits that exactly, but should we go into regrets? [laughter] Should we just jump right into regret? Well, I would say that I don’t have anything that is a true regret, there’s nothing that is a true regret, there’s not something that if I were to—well I guess I do, I do have one. I haven’t shared this with these friends, but in my second book I wrote about the challenges of being a person hoping to—I got married when I was quite young, still married, but—I had a lot of insecurity around getting married in general, but also as a young 21-year-old person.
In addition to the fact that I was very young, and knew all that I didn’t know, I was raised at home with a single mom, and so I didn’t have a model of a marriage to follow. So I had this haunting feeling that somehow I wasn’t equipped to create a healthy and functional marriage, because I hadn’t seen that modelled in my own family of origin. And I really felt strongly that it was an important note to hit many times, or an important point to make many times because over the years I’ve spoken to so many other people with that same experience who grew up thinking, okay am I little less than, am I not able to create a healthy home because I didn’t have that modelled for me in a great way when I was growing up. So I really wanted to extend, sort of the gift of saying, “No you can, we get a fresh start, you can be deliberate, you can be intentional, you can create a healthy family and home and marriage and so on, even if where you came from was less than optimal.”
And so that was important to me and I felt like that was a, one of the purposes for why I was writing. But one of the anecdotes I shared in this book, this was in my second book, MOMumental, was about when I was engaged, a family friend of my then-fiance’s wrote him a letter expressing her concern that he get married to me because she knew details about my parents’ broken marriage. And she felt like it was likely, or inevitable, or something that I would repeat those things, which was of course sort of naming my worst nightmare. She wrote him this letter, it was an older friend of his family, it’s not a close friend, but someone he knew, and I wanted to include that anecdote just to say, you know, “The struggle is real!” I really did have this sort of fear about this, and then it was compounded with this thing that happened," and some other anecdotes. So I included that and I tried to change as much as possible about this person, because it wasn’t my attempt to sort of be passive aggressive and call her out.
My kids, my daughters who are teenagers, when someone on Twitter writes something that’s sort of vaguely negative about someone else, they call it “sub-tweeting,” so I wasn’t trying to like sub-tweet this person after twenty years, you know? I was really trying to use that as just another way of telling the story. And I do regret that I didn’t go to that person. That person still lives in the same area where I live, and I think it would have been healthier of me and classier of me and also just, I don’t know, responsible, had I gone to her and said “Hey, you know what, I’m writing this book. I’m gonna mention this thing. I will not say your profession or your name or your relationship with my husband’s family or anything like that, but I feel like it’s an important sort of building block in telling this story.” Because it’s dramatic, and it was a dramatic event when I read that letter. And I didn’t.
And at the time I was like, “Well, this is responsible, I’m changing so much about her, nobody’ll ever know who it is. But after reading the book, my mother-in-law said, "I think I know who that was. Was this bd-dch?” and I thought Oh no. And I don’t know how many other people figured that out, but I do feel regret about that.
If I could do it all again, I would go to that person and say, let’s work this out, let’s resolve this now, I still want to use the story, please, I’ll make it a man, I’ll make it, you know, somebody in Paris or whatever, but I do regret that. So I encourage, I’m sure, you’re probably, you know, more mature than I am. I did that and I regretted that. But that’s probably my only regret, and in other experiences of sharing in books, I think, you know, those stories were important, ’cause they were sort of high-stakes, risky stories to tell, and that I hope made the story stronger. But that’s just, I would tweak that a little bit.
Caryn: Well and I think that is a really good point. I think this is one of those places where as a human being you have to trust your gut. Where if you have this little sense of like, “I wonder if they’re gonna be upset,” or “I wonder if people are gonna think x when they read this story,” that’s a, follow that rabbit trail, ’cause it’s gonna take you to the place where you need to go with it. Whether it’s asking somebody for permission or deciding to tell the story differently, or whatever, or even just rethinking your motives for telling it. Like, trust your gut on those things.
Jennifer: Caryn, we have somebody who has a question.
Caryn: Oh I see, oh that’s why you handed me the thing. Okay, yes?
Lisa: [00:29:45] Lisa here. At this point, the panel started to get some great questions from the audience. They’re hard to hear on the recording, so I’m gonna pop in and paraphrase. First up, How do you quiet your inner editor while in the early stages of a writing project?
Carla: I have some, I have some thoughts on that, if it’s okay.
Caryn: No, go ahead.
Carla: I just heard a reading by a guy named Chris Hoke, who’s here, and he works, he was a prison chaplain and he’s written about the prisoners that he works with. And there’s one prisoner in particular that he built a really strong friendship with, and he wanted to be able to tell this guy’s story a little bit, and I mean it’s a very powerful story in his book about this prisoner meeting his daughter for the first time and how Chris helped facilitate this meeting. And he ran it by the guy and talked to him about it.
But one of the things that he talked about is he said, you know, “I’m telling my part of this story.” So I think that’s another filter to use, is “What’s my piece of this story that I want to tell?” And you only get to tell your own story. You don’t get to usurp other people’s stories to make yours more interesting. So I think that’s one of those ways that you can get rid of that inner editor and dive back into your inner writer and say, what part of this situation is my story to tell?
And, you know, what is it, what are the pieces of it that are important to where I’m taking this memoir, what are the pieces of it that are gonna help my reader follow me, and kind of weave through the extraneous stuff that feels like it could turn into revenge or it could turn into hurt or it could turn into misunderstanding. ’Cause I have that same struggle, my inner, obviously my inner editor is very powerful and much stronger than my inner writer, quite frankly. But being able to kinda think, you know, “What part of this story is mine to tell?” can help.
Margot: I love the challenge of speaking the truth in love, because I’m such a believer that, as hard as the story is, there are ways to tell it graciously. And so in my memoir I didn’t have to go into pages and pages and chapters and chapters of like, how difficult it was. Honestly, in a sentence or two, maybe, about my father, I was able to communicate, this was not optimal, and that’s enough for the reader to get it. So I feel like we can do it in gracious ways and also ways that aren’t so ...
Jennifer: And I would just add to that that in your first draft, tell it all, you know, tell, don’t censor yourself as you’re first pouring out the story. There’s plenty of time for that. And maybe you’ll write twenty pages about something and decide that it’s not kind or it’s not loving for you to include it, and then you can turn it into what Margot was describing, you know, a brief summary or something that we get it. But it’s important for you to do that work first, and have really, revisit that memory and remember what it looked like and smelled like and felt like and so on. So.
Carla: And I also think, too, it’s great to have that good inner editor, but as a writer it’s also super important to have an outer editor, like another person, so it’s like, right, you get that first draft done and you get it all out and to have somebody else to come through, ’cause I think we’ve done that certainly with professional editors, but even having friends and just other readers to kind of go, I don’t know, this kind of seems too much, or this, you know, and if we ask people to read with that in mind, I think it really helps.
Lisa: Have you ever regretted revealing something about yourself?
Carla: Well again this goes back to the depression, and the regret wasn’t so much that I said it, like I said, revealing that was actually really therapeutic for me, to be able to own it, and it’s something that I now talk about very freely, obviously, with people I’ve never met.
But it was something that came back to bite me a little bit, in a review of my book on Amazon somebody was like, I wonder if she’s still in the throes of depression and really can’t see her way through. and I was like, you just totally missed the whole point of my book! But it was something that was kind of used as a way to be dismissive of the other things I was saying. And so I regret that about it, and I think that can happen sometimes too, where especially if you are talking about mental illness or places of struggle for you, or places where you just don’t have it figured out all the time, it can be used sort of against you again as a way for people to be like, you know, she’s not all there, so, you know, just ignore that.
Jennifer: [00:33:38] I had an unexpected thing happen, and it’s not a regret, I don’t regret having written this, but in my first two books I did write about my kids as little ones and as Carla said I tried to sort of talk about general things and in one of the books, I was trying to make the point for other parents that when I was a young mom, I really sometimes made the mistake of thinking that who my kids were at age two and three and four indicated who they were gonna be as adults. So I think the name of that chapter is something like “Kids aren’t little adults.”
So it was just, you know, I’m a slow learner I think as a parent, so it took me a while to realize that all two-year-olds are really selfish and grabby, and it doesn’t mean that my child when he’s eighteen is gonna be very selfish and grabby and whatever. But some of the stories I told, included two of my kids are eighteen months apart and the older one is a boy and the younger one is a girl, and they are very close, they sort of grew up almost like twins. And they spent all their time together and double stroller, people saw them as twins and so on.
And they’re both pretty verbal—[laughs] I don’t know why—and one thing that my son would say would be things like, if she, if his sister were to fall or to skin her knee or whatever, he would say, and it was very cute because he had a bit of a speech impediment, and he would say something like, “Well, on the bwight side, it wasn’t me!” [audience laughter] And at the time I thought it was sort of half funny and half really horrifying, like, “Where’s your compassion? Are you gonna be like a sociopath?” You know. And I made the mistake you know as a new mom of kind of thinking, oh my goodness, how can I remedy this, you know, how can I teach him compassion, cause obviously he has no soul, you know. But actually he was just a very cute little normal preschooler.
But anyway, time passes, and he is in high school, and a couple of years ago, after dating a girl for about a year, he broke up with her. And her mother was very upset. She was also upset, but the mother was upset. And in the days following this break-up, he told me a few days after this, he said, “You know I’m getting these weird text messages from this girl’s mom.” And I said “Oh that’s strange that she’s texting you,” the mother, and he said “Yeah, take a look.” And so he gave me his phone and on his phone were screenshots from my first two books of things I had said about him, and I did use his name, things like, [high-pitched voice] “You know, when my son,” and his name is Ian, “When my son Ian was little, I thought he was a sociopath because when his sister would fall over and he would say, ’well on the bwight side, it’s not me.’”
thought it was a cute story, and she sort of made the point, “See you’re still a heartless, you know,” [audience awws] And there were many examples of that. And I was absolutely flabbergasted, because that’s something, as a person who writes a lot of personal stories and stories about my family, I never expected that. And when that book came out, it was in 2011 or 2012 or something like that, so he was, you know, I don’t know, I guess he was about 12 or something when I was writing it, and I’m telling these stories about when he was 4, and so it seemed really safe, you know, and also for any of us who are parents, we’ve all seen our kids be completely heartless, and you think, oh my goodness, so it was kind of a general story, but specific to him.
So I was really crushed, because I never wanted the work that I was doing or the way I involved my family to be something that could be used sort of as a weapon against them. Happily, this particular child is, like, oozing with self-esteem, he’s pretty bullet-proof, and he was like, “That’s pretty weird, right?”
Margot: Like a sociopath!
Jennifer: Right? Exactly. Oh, my goodness, no. [audience laughter] He’s a very compassionate, lovely person. But he was able to just say that it was strange and inappropriate, and I told him not to text her back and so on. But that was something that really threw me, because I never, it never occurred to me that something that I wrote about my child, whom I adore, would later be used in that way against him.
Lisa: [00:38:19] How do you handle telling hard or dark stories that you would never get permission to tell?
Carla: I know Margot wants to talk about Glass Castle, so I’m not gonna talk about Glass Castle. [laughter] But, I will talk about Mary Karr’s Lit. Anybody read Mary Karr? And she talks about a lot of dark things. But again she really makes it, here’s what happened to me, and the other people, like she dated David Foster Wallace for a while, who was like, spiralling, you know, in his own mental illness, but she barely touches on his part of that story. She just talks about what it was like for her to be romantically involved with somebody who’s falling apart.
And she, I just think she does a really good job of that, and because she’s, because the darkness of her life affected her so much, she had plenty to tell of her own story. But I do think, I think you’re right Bronwyn (?), that’s a very, that’s very delicate territory to tread, because you, you just can’t tell someone else’s story for them. And you can’t take it on to make your story better. It’s just, that’s a violation and it’s another way of, you know, hurting that person.
But I think, figuring out like, and this is why sometimes memoirs take ten years to write, because getting to those places where you’re able to talk about, this is how that, this is what it was like for me to love someone who was so hurting. That’s your story to tell. You get that completely. [inaudible question] They might not, but you might not have to tell theirs. You can say, “I loved someone who was so broken and abused, and here’s what it was like.” You don’t have to say anything more about it, except to talk about your piece.
Lisa: In writing memoir, how much detail is OK to change?
Jennifer: [00:40:00] Thank you for bringing that up. We wanted to talk about that issue. It’s really important that memoirs are true, that the stories are true that we’re telling. There’ve been some recent examples, I was at the—
Caryn: James Frey was the big one. A Million Little Pieces.
Jennifer: Yeah. Million Little Pieces where he wrote a memoir and then it was later revealed that he had really invented it, it was fiction. So it wasn’t something really happened and he changed the names or the identity of the person to protect them, it was stories that actually didn’t happen. And so I feel really committed, as I’m sure we all do, to telling true stories, because we, you know, if you wanna write fiction, you can write fiction.
And maybe in some cases it’s something to think about, if you can’t tell someone else’s story in a way that will preserve a relationship you wanna preserve, or whatever, you could consider writing fiction. But, if you’re telling a true story, it does need to be true. However, I think we all agree, you can change details about the person in order to protect their dignity or their identity. In my book of short reflections that I described to you, I wrote about a woman in my church who is sort of notoriously the curmudgeon person. And I had a really good story that I wanted to share about her, and the point was to validate that she had so much to offer, but on the outside she just was known as sort of the grumpy person in the church who was always, you know, snapping at the little kids making noise and so on.
And I really wanted to tell this story, but we are members of the same church, and we see each other almost every Sunday, and I actually really care about her, and I didn’t want to say anything that would ever, I knew she would probably read book. So this is a woman who sort of famously has a certain pet, now [laughing] I wanna not disclose anymore, but I changed the animals that this person is very into, her name, and some details about her past, and then I wrote it, and I’ve gotten a lot of response, including from people at our church, of how much they liked that story.
And nobody knew, and I sort of vaguely said it was a long time ago, and things like that. Now the story was dead honest, but there was no reason for me to be disrespectful to this person. That wasn’t the point of the story; the point of the story to talk about relationship.
Lisa: How do you handle situations in which you’re asked to read your work in public when people you write about will be in the audience?
Carla: I was just gonna say, find a different excerpt. Have a few in your back pocket, depending on their, who’s gonna be hearing.
Margot: That’s good. There’s a writer at the Festival, I don’t know if she’s in this room [laughing], but I attended her reading, she’d shown me everything, and when I read it in my home, I’m like, oh boy, I sound like a cool fun person, and then I was in the room when it was read out loud, and it was about my clips in my hair, and the reference was like
Carla: Did this just happen to you?
Margot: Oh it’s happened in the last few years. And the reference was like, you know, she dresses like a toddler, or something [audience laughter] and carries herself as a toddler, and like, yeah, it felt kind of flesh and weird, but she can see me, so, right, no harm was intended, but there was stuff about our congregation, and I don’t think she read the hardest parts, you know, two blocks from our church about our congregation. She chose something else.
Jennifer: Yeah, I would say, and that would be, for giving excerpts to bloggers or other things like that, to be mindful of who might read it and come across it. And I think, you know, also, in my experience, you know, the people who are coming to the reading are mostly the people [laughing] for me who are in the book anyway. Not very many people come to readings often, so. Just a little honesty.
Lisa: Do you find that humor takes the edge off when describing other people?
Jennifer: I think it really depends on who the people are. I think, you know, also how self-aware they are. There are people who are really self-aware and love to poke fun at themselves and so on. And other people who are not there, and so if you are writing about them in a way that’s, discloses a lot about how you see them, you might be holding up a mirror to someone who’s never seen that angle of how they are.
So again, I mean, this brings me to just a major point about memoir, is, it is messy, and it does create problems, and even if you do everything right, and you take the pages to everyone who’s involved, there will be some messy relationships that you’ll have to clean up, or you’ll have to navigate. And that’s just how relationships are, right? I mean, all relationships have times where there are snags and there are things that aren’t a lot of fun, but we have to sort of clean up and work through. And so it is an opportunity to kind of, you know, revisit our relationships that have been important and if we’re writing about them, we’re also maybe gonna work them into a healthier place, you know, after having these little messy dust-ups that are inevitable if you’re writing memoir.
Margot: [00:45:16] I just wanted to say, Anne Lamott says you need to be willing to “kill your darlings.” So your darlings is like that, that fabulous story, that fabulous something, and in helping somebody else write her story, there was just the most wonderful, wonderful, absurd story of a man in his casket and his grandchildren were invited, like, to walk by and put in, like, their favorite junk food that reminded them, look, he was covered in Cheetos and hot dogs and I’m like, Oh, my gosh, that story has to be told, and you know, a really gentle editor said, “When they read this, will they be proud to read this?” And right, so you have to ask why you’re doing it, like, because this is a fabulous story that I’m telling, but I felt like, what a great filter. “Will they be proud to read this?” And that’s on us, right, to be creative and thoughtful enough to tell a true story that they can be proud of.
Carla: Well, and just going back to that question of when is it fiction and when is it memoir, I think we all have to be honest as writers too that we don’t remember everything accurately. And, you know, especially if you’re telling things from your childhood or from a long time ago, you have to know that, I’m probably conflating some stories, or I’m probably, my memory on that might be a little shifty. And that’s not to put doubt on yourself, but it is to be honest with yourself that, if I, and with your audience, to be able to say, you know, I’ve conflated some characters, or it’s possible I’ve told this story from my perspective. But again, if you’re being honest about, this is my perspective, this is how I remember it, might not be what happened but it is how I remember it, that’s honest too.
Jennifer: And that’s memoir
Carla: Yeah, it’s memoir, it’s an honest way of saying, I might have some of the details wrong, but I remember it so clearly like this, that this is the story I get to tell. As long as you’re again saying, I may have—
Jennifer: And Mary Karr—
Carla: —gotten some things off here.
Jennifer: In her new book, The Art of Memoir, which I recommend to everyone here, she talks about the fact that she teaches a writing class, and she stages an event for her students, and has something really dramatic happen, you know, like she’s teaching in a lecture hall, and she has a colleague come in, and they’ve planned it but the students don’t know that, and they get into a fight, and they argue, and it turns into an ugly situation. And later she has the students describe it and write about it, not knowing that it has been staged.
And the students all see something different, because we do. You know, some of the students say, “You were really aggressive with him.” And other people say, “He was really aggressive with you.” Or, “Obviously it was his fault because of the way he stormed in,” and others say, “He came in but he obviously was just trying to work something through.” You know, and that’s how we look at our pasts as well.
And we’re always, always, always, always rewriting our pasts as well, and that’s something to keep in mind when you’re writing memoir. We, as you like your life, you start giving more attention and more power to certain stories because it fits the kind of narrative that you’re constructing about who you are and what your life means. And that’s appropriate in memoir, right? Because we’re, you’re giving different weight and different importance to certain memories. And so something that might have been minor that happened to you when you were six, reflecting on it when you’re thirty-six or forty-six or fifty-six, you might say, that was a turning point, when really perhaps that’s just the way you’re starting to tell the story of your life.
Margot: Well just in terms of, so, The Glass Castle, telling a really hard story, if you don’t know it, it’s on being raised by parents who were not functional, and she just does it so beautiful, because part of it is, she doesn’t express any bitterness, and what that does is it allows the reader to sort of be outraged on her behalf, because she’s not bitter about it. So just The Glass Castle, just a beautiful way to tell a really hard story that allows the reader to experience.
Caryn: Alright, we’re gonna come back to questions, and I know you’ve had your hand up for a minute, but I want to ask a question again because we only have a few more minutes. And I think there’s a couple things maybe that would be helpful just as we’re kind of wrapping this up, is that I know that this happens to you guys all the time, right, people come up and say, “I’ve got a great idea for a memoir.” Right? Probably a lot of you right now have great ideas for memoirs. What is the best general piece of advice, or specific piece of advice that you would offer to someone who says, “I’ve got this great idea”?
Jennifer: [00:49:49] I said this yesterday in my publishing 101, so I know a few of you, Rachel, were there, and others, but I think it’s the, in my opinion, and maybe all of ours, the best memoirs really come out of wrangling with a question or questions. So the questions that sort of keep you up in the middle of the night that you have been arguing with your college roommates for twenty years, or with your family about the haunting questions, and they might be about, you know, who is God or God to you? Or it could be, “What does it mean to be family?” Or it could be, you know, “What’s my purpose here?” Or it could be, you know, “Why is there injustice?” Or a specific injustice in the world and so on.
And so I think, you know, when I work with editorial clients and they say, “I really want to write a memoir, what should it, you know, I’ve got these four different ideas,” I always look for the one that is the most sort of high stakes and seems to be the one that the person has the most questions about. And memoirs don’t really answer those questions necessarily. They might bring on more questions. But if you are so taken with some question or questions about yourself, or your spirituality, or life, or whatever, that it’s waking you up and haunting you and troubling you, and everything you see on the news or everything you read reminds you of it, that’s probably a good place to start.
Margot: I want to say that your memoir has to serve the reader. We kind of get caught up in, I have this really interesting story, and people have listened to me tell it for years, it’s a really interesting story, and yet every book on every page, every chapter needs to be serving the reader, meeting their needs. So yes, you have this great story, but either write it all first and then let your inner editor go back and look at it again, but it needs to be serving your reader and giving them something connecting it to their experience.
Carla: And then to just put a hitch in that, the number one advice that I give to people when they ask me about this is they’ll say, I really, I have this story to tell, this thing happened to me, and I really think it would help other people to read this story. And I’m like, stop right there, because if your main goal is to help other people, it’s the number one way to make your memoir turn into a preachy, awful story that is gonna be like banging people over the head with this point you’re just dying to make because you learned something and you really want them to learn it to.
Nobody wants to read that. I mean, that’s a different kind of book. That’s self-help, that’s not a memoir, and that’s not honest writing if you’re trying to write your own story. So I always say, if people are like, “I just really wanna help people,” then I’m like well, you need to write a different kind of book, this isn’t it. So if that’s what’s motivating you is you’re like, this happened to me and I can really help people ’cause I learned all this stuff, I’d say back it up, and kind of try that again, think through, what is the real reason you feel compelled to tell this story? And that doesn’t mean you should tell stories that aren’t universal or don’t have connections with your readers, or that aren’t going to spark life in your readers, but going back to both Lit and The Glass Castle and lots of other, one of my favorite memoir writers is this guy from Wisconsin named Michael Perry.
Anybody read any Michael Perry? Yeah, he’s got a book called Truck: A Love Story. Right? Yeah. And he writes about his life as a small-town paramedic in this little town in Wisconsin in kind of a farm or whatever. But he just writes these stories because these are weird things that happen to him. And you never feel like he’s trying to teach you that, oh life in a small town is better than life in a big city, or everyone should be a paramedic, like, nothing, he just tells these stories of a human experience, and like Lit and like Glass Castle .
You leave the work to the reader to see like, that helped me, or, so I think if you’re really trying to help the reader with something, you’re gonna do a disservice to yourself as a writer, cause you’re not gonna push yourself hard enough to really be honest. And you’re gonna do a disservice to your reader, because you’re not gonna let them have that magical experience that we all have as readers where you read something and you’re like OHHH! that, yes! That doesn’t happen when somebody’s like, “You know what, here’s the thing you need to,” that doesn’t, you take that away from them. So I would say if your idea, if your goal is to help, back up. Start again. Really go deeper. What is it about this story that needs to be told and why do you need to tell it.
Caryn: I love that. And I think it’s huge, ’cause I actually think memoir should do the same thing for you as fiction does, right? It’s just the beautiful writing, the beautiful story, I mean they have the same arc, they have the same shape, it’s just different, so. And that’s great. OK, let’s take a couple more questions. Yes, go.
Lisa: Do you have any regrets about what you’ve published?
Carla: No regrets. [audience laughter]
Jennifer: Yeah, I don’t either, other than that, you know, subtweet in that one book that I had.
Carla: Yeah I think if you’re gonna be a memoir writer you sort of have to, it’s like having a baby, where you’re like, this is the most humiliating thing I’m ever gonna do, so here it is, here I am, go. It’s a little bit like that, where you’re like, if I’m gonna write a true story, it’s gonna be me in all my emotional nakedness, and I’ve have to be ready to do that or I would need to do something different.
Caryn: I think we were talking about that last night, is that there’s no way around that. It’s humiliating! You’re telling really, most things that you don’t ever tell people. It’s wonderful, I mean it’s cool, but were you the one who said you have to figure out if you’ve got the stomach for this? And the idea that most people don’t. You might not have the stomach for it, cause it’s hard. OK. Next?
Lisa: [00:55:13] When you’re writing about a bad experience you had at a church or school, how do you handle relationships with those institutions? How do you avoid hurting or demonizing them?
Margot: Nobody is raising the microphone to their lips. [audience laughter]
Carla: No, I have so many thoughts about this. I mean, yeah, I’ve done, I’ve edited a lot of books about the emerging church, and a lot of those books are people coming from evangelical churches where something went just amiss for them, and now they’re in this other place. And that is, that’s a struggle people have. And I think this is one of those places where power and privilege come into play, where when you’re writing about one person versus another person. As a writer you now have power that the other person doesn’t have have, you know, the whole idea of the revenge thing, like, I got a pen and you don’t, so here I go.
So you have power, but if you’re the person who’s been wounded, the institution holds the power and the privilege in most situations. So you get to speak out against that. You know, you can do what you feel you need to do to protect the place and the people involved, and those institutions. Especially I think when it’s churches, because so many times our family history is connected to those faith traditions and those churches and we realize like, this isn’t just about me and that institution, this is me and my heritage. That can feel really vulnerable just as a person too, but I think you can be a little more bold about talking about those things in big ways, because those places can take it. They’re in a position to speak for themselves in a bigger way than an individual is.
Caryn: Yeah, again I think it’s saying, what part of this is mine to own? And saying, you know, this church, this is how they were structured, this is how they work. I am, my husband had more of a fundamentalist background than I did as a college student and now he’s in a very different place spiritually, but he’s like, I’m able to look at that experience almost as a cross-cultural experience, whereas like isn’t it interesting that this faith tradition does this thing, what an unusual thing to do! I wonder why they do that?
Like, it’s almost a sociological approach, and if you’re in a place of kind of health and healing where you feel like, I’m able to distance myself a little bit from the things that happened there, and look at it almost as a sociologist or an anthropologist, kind of saying, here’s what happened, those things are real and true. Now the emotional piece or the heaviness comes from how that, how I dealt with it as a person. I don’t know if that makes sense but at least that, I find that can be helpful to create a little emotional distance.
Margot: We just wanted to underscore the word health [laughter], and if you’re not in that healthy place yet, probably not the time to write about it. You, right, you’ve healed, you’ve been on that journey, so you can write about it from a good place.
Caryn: Or you write about it, but put it away, you know, and come back to it. How ’bout one more question?
Lisa: Anne Lamott says that if they, people you write about, wanted you to be kind, they would’ve behaved better. Do you agree?
Margot: Nothing that’s gonna be useful. I just wanted to say, that like, if, as I was describing my adoptive father, you can go online and find out who he is, but my birth father you’re never gonna know who that was, and it was so satisfying to be able to give him a fake name which was the name of his dog, [audience laughter], it was just very satisfying. But, people behaving [drowned out]
Jennifer: Yeah, I mean, I think there are some stories that I’m waiting to tell and my friend Lorilee is nodding, she had a good, yes, there are some stories that in order to tell them truly and in a way that feels safe actually to me as a writer, I want to wait to tell until people have passed on to their great reward. [audience laughter]
Because there are people that I don’t really want to engage with about these things, and I think there is that element of, if I were to write about someone who didn’t behave well in a very personal way, and tell very true stories, there would be no way to do it without saying what the relationship was or more about that person. But I’m not interested in engaging with that person about these things. And so I need to make the decision to say, okay, maybe this is something that I do write about now, and I journal about, and I think about, and I research or whatever, and I set it aside, and perhaps there will come a day when I can tell some stories that I won’t need to worry about that, so.
And I hope that for any of us who did choose to wait to tell some stories ’till the person has died, it wouldn’t be to vilify the person, or to hurt them, but yes, there will probably be people who say, I don’t agree with that telling of it, or you’re oversensitive, or whatever, and that’s where you just have to own it as a person who writes memoir, and say, “Yep, I’m just telling my story, this is what it felt like to me, this is the way I remember it, this is why it was important to me.” And yes, there will be people who say, you know, who aren’t happy about it. But you know, at this point I think all of us have written enough personal essay and things online that there comes a point when honestly, [laughs] you just don’t mind anymore. I mean you sort of don’t read the comments, you know, and [inaudible]
ALL: Never read the comments! [audience laughter]
Caryn: All right, but we are out of time, so thank you for coming everybody.
Lisa: [01:00:49] Many thanks to Carla Barnhill, Jennifer Grant, Margot Starbuck, and Caryn Rivadeneira. You can find links to their work in the description of this episode of Rewrite Radio. Thanks also to Wesley Hill. You can read more from him at spiritualfriendship.org, or follow him on Twitter @wesleyhill.
Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College, and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Our team includes Sarah Bass, Jon Brown, Sadie Burgher, Donald Hettinga, Lew Klatt, Scott Hozee, Jennifer Holberg, Bob Hudson, Annake Kapteyn, Carolyn Muyskens, Deb Rienstra, Sarah Turnage, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart. You can learn more about the Festival of Faith & Writing at festival.calvin.edu and, if you’re into the social media, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I’m Lisa Ann Cockrel. Back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.