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Memoir Writing

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This Labor Day weekend I’m going to begin work on a memoir of mother/daughterhood. This is something I’ve wanted to write for a long time, but I put it off for years, until I finally felt ready. What makes me so sure I’m ready now? I think it’s a combination of having posted a lot of blogs on the topic of motherhood this year, combined with the passing of my mother two years ago.

I did not want to write about my mother while she was alive. She read almost everything I wrote, and was wonderfully supportive of my writing—but I didn’t want her to read anything I wrote about her. In fact, I never even told her I’d electronically published Perfectly Normal, because I knew she’d be hurt by the things I said about her in it. (And I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop her from buying and reading it—against my protests, she bought and read my erotic anthologies.)

When I decided a few months ago that I was ready to write this memoir, I momentarily forgot about my daughter; slowly it dawned on me that I still have her feelings to consider. This is an issue that was raised in every class of Beginning Creative Writing that I taught during the 1990s at the Writing Salon in San Francisco. It’s an issue faced by every serious writer at some point, especially if she uses material from her personal life. One school of thought–promoted for the most part by male novelists—dismisses this concern, calling it “self-censorship.” This philosophy holds that artistic integrity should never be sacrificed for the sake of sparing someone’s feelings. Woody Allen’s movie All About Harry, in which he plays a writer who demolishes wives and lovers in his transparently disguised fiction, deals beautifully with the issue. Some (male) writer once said that Keats’s Ode On a Grecian Urn is “worth any number of little old ladies.”

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In case I haven’t made myself clear, I believe this business of “self-censorship” is a decidedly male point of view. It’s one to which all new writers are susceptible: when we first start out, we believe this definition of artistic integrity, and we strive to purge ourselves of what we think of as neurotic self-censorship. But after years of pondering the issue, I’ve come to believe that there’s no one answer to the question of how much we should reveal about our lives, and particularly the people in them. There’s nothing neurotic or self-censoring about sparing the feelings of the people we love, especially if it’s for the sake of our relationships with them. We’re human beings first, writers or artists second. I wouldn’t want to write something about my daughter, who, unlike me, is a very private person, that would create more problems in what is already a problematic relationship. I love her more than I love any book I could possibly write, and improving our relationship is far more important to me than improving my writing.

I’m not saying that it never makes sense to “tell all” without regard for someone else’s feelings. I’m saying that whether a writer does so or not depends on a multitude of factors, not the least of which is what the writer wants to happen in any given relationship. The point is, this is a question without one objective answer, one that every writer must decide for him or herself.

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Given that the subject of mother/daughterhood is a potential minefield, I’ve been forced to ask myself, why write about it at all? To begin with, the relationship between mothers and daughters has been insufficiently explored in literature, and there’s a mother lode (no pun intended) of material here. On a more personal note, my relationship with my mother was fraught with ambivalence and conflict. So was my sister’s relationship with her; and my sister’s relationship with her daughter; and mine with my daughter. Generational patterns were passed down from mother to daughter, many of them negative and destructive. For a long time, in light of feminist theory, I believed that much of the stress between mothers and daughters came from living under patriarchy. Now that I’ve seen many decidedly healthier relationships than the ones in my family, I know the patriarchy isn’t the whole story. Still, this cannot be entirely ignored: America isn’t the only place on earth in which mothers have wildly ambivalent feelings about their girl children—far from it. Now that I know about discarded girl babies in China, the lowered status of Indian women who bear only girls, the misery of Iranian women who fail to give their husbands sons, I can’t deny the role played by societal disdain for females: it inevitably poisons relationships among women, including those to whom we give birth.

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I’m going off on a political tangent, something I’m prone to do in my writing: the criticism of my fiction that is most consistent is my tendency to be “preachy.” I have to rein that in sometimes, to focus on the personal. My feelings about my mother and my daughter are just about as personal as I can get; in fact, I expect this will be the most intimate writing I’ve ever done. Writing is scary enough; terror of the blank page is real, even when we’re writing fantastical stories that seemingly bear no connection to our lives. To delve into something so tied to my heart and soul is truly frightening. It’s true I wrote a memoir once before, but Perfectly Normal focused on my experience with a child born with a chronic medical condition, or disability. It was intimate, but it differed from my current project in that the central emotion of that story was/is rage. Not that it wasn’t scary to reveal that anger—it was. I had fantasies of negative reviews that would call me a self-pitying whiner. So far nobody’s said that, but then again, the book isn’t exactly a best-seller, and any reviews it’s garnered came from the disability community, where they understand this particular rage. Also, I suspect that people are hesitant to attack any mother who lives through something like this, no matter how obnoxious she might sound.

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As with Perfectly Normal, when I wrote each of my five novels I imagined their reception. When I finished my third, the one I was sure would make the best-seller list on its first day out (like the other four, it remains unpublished), I wrote three mock reviews: one positive, one snottily negative on literary grounds, and one politically negative. That’s the kind of nutty internal dialog I consider real self-censorship—worrying what the unknown, unseen public will think of my work. That’s the kind I fight, writing whatever I have to say, regardless of the voices that haunt my thoughts and dreams. That’s the censorship–societal, cultural, political–that a writer has to learn to ignore if she’s ever going to write anything worth reading.

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One response »

  1. Wow, Marcy. Glad I read backwards and found your former post regarding the emotional and political, not to mention moral, act of writing memoir. I’d read the other about you posting your memoir in process here and at the time felt impressed by your tenacity. In fact, your courage inspired the memoir I’m writing myself. Thank you. I consider memoir emotionally draining, painful. I write often about my father because it’s my only way to deal with my feelings about him. In fact memoir is always my attempt to purge pain and accomplish prespective, yet the act itself is painful. Does that make sense? I’d be interested to read any footnotes you might include here regarding the emotional and moral challenges you encounter as you write about your relationship with your daughter and mother. I think Anne Dillard said we should write only about those people equally armed with a pen. Have you read “Inventing the Truth” or “The Situation and the Story?” Both are excellent references for us writing autobiographical narrative.
    Good luck!

    Alana–I am thinking of moving the memoir over to its own separate blog, where I might include a “process journal,” covering what you’re suggesting as footnotes. In this format, it’s going to become unwieldy to read as it gets longer; also, I’ll be revising, and don’t want to leave older versions up. Of course it makes sense that this kind of writing is painful, yet also purges some of the pain. I find that the more I do it, the less painful it is the next time. Thanks for reading and commenting. I haven’t heard of either of the books you mention–I’ll check them out.–MS

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