Fear of Offending

I have a dilemma common to most writers: I’m afraid to write freely for fear that I’ll upset someone I care about. I thought that once my parents died, this would no longer be an issue. But I forgot that there are plenty of other people I could offend, including my children and husband. For instance, I have four children: how do I write about parental favoritism without making it sound like I do have favorites? Or, when writing about my marriages, how do I write frankly about my marital satisfaction without upsetting the one(s) who come across unfavorably?

I realize that the chances of ex-husbands or lovers reading my work is not high (unless my work becomes well-known–which of course is something I want, but am afraid to expect). But my family is very interested in my writing–at least my husband is–and wants to read what I write. I also want to share it with them. But how do I do that and be completely honest about certain things? It’s no good to try to cloak what I have to say in fiction–in fact, that’s almost even worse: I might want to embellish something that happened to me in real life and the embellishment might be interpreted as something that’s real. If I write about a married woman who has taken a lover, or wants to, will my husband think that’s what I’ve really done or thought?

This reminds me of the joke about the one-hundred-year old couple who go to a lawyer for a divorce. The lawyer asks, “Why did you wait so long?” And they reply, “We wanted to wait until the children were dead.” Do I have to wait until every one is dead before I can write exactly what I want to write? Chances are I won’t make it.

One alternative is to write under a pseudonym. Donald Westlake writes about doing that in his essay “Pen Names Galore,” but he never says that he did it to protect the feelings of people he was writing about. His reasons were mainly so that he could write prolifically, or change his style, without spreading his own name too thin. He doesn’t address whether or not pen names are a good idea to protect the reader.

Some writers protect their loved ones and even acquaintances by disguising who they’re writing about. But how does that help when you’re writing about your husband and you only have one? Or one of your children? (As if they couldn’t tell which one you’re writing about.) Or the person you’ve been friends with since the sixth grade? Some people might not know who you’re writing about, but those you’re writing about probably will.

I guess the only answer is to write freely and the consequences be damned. I’m just not sure that I’m ready to do that. The problem is, until I am, I probably won’t be the writer I long to be. Because writing requires honesty. I can’t cheat by pretending to feel differently than I really do. The result will ring false. Writing also requires “opening a vein”–letting it all hang out. Not every little detail, but the deepest meaning of the details you do include. Otherwise your writing will be flat. Mine often is, and I’ve diagnosed my problem as fear of offending. I need to get off this fence, jump in the mud and get dirty. Worrying about what others think of me is only going to give me writer’s block. And it has.

Writing Memoirs

“I can’t stress enough how different it is to write about the real and the unreal. When I started writing my memoir my whole metabolism changed. I’d just turned 50 and I assumed it was just age, but I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning and I had the most delicious lie-ins of my life! It was just sheer emotional exhaustion, I now realise. Communing with your significant dead is what it amounts to, and that is an exhausting thing. Not unpleasant, but still hard work.”
Martin Amis

“For me, the memoir is not autobiography. It’s very, very distant from that. There’s no attempt to give a chronological rendition of one’s life. I was looking at the traces of the legacies. I used the novelist’s skills of going into the minds of the people you know least – namely my parents before I was born! These are totally mysterious others. You also need to be able to set scenes and to be able create movement in the text and create characters the way a novelist would.”
Lisa Appignanesi


“Lisa Appignanesi and I may have had peculiar lives but they’re also fundamentally universal. The only things that really matter are births and deaths and separations and unions – and we all have them. This is the advice I’d give a prospective memoir writer: the critic leads the reader from quote to quote, but that’s also what the memoir writer does – you’re quoting from memory, and what stays in your memory is the interesting stuff and that’s the stuff you should quote. And if these things hang together at all, you’re on to something.”
Martin Amis

“I think the first thing to do is to select out. Otherwise you’ll have no time to live as you recollect the past – there is a great deal of it! So select out for the moments that have a particular resonance for you. Play with those and see where they take you. They may take you into interesting places and not necessarily the places where you thought you might visit.”
Lisa Appignanesi

Suggested Memoirs

I just finished and am still mulling over the book The Memoir and the Memoirist, by Thomas Larson. It gave me a lot to think about. It also made me want to start reading memoirs and personal essays like crazy, to see if I can apply the observations he made to each work. Here is a list of the books he discusses throughout the text:

The Kiss and The Mother Knot: A Memoir, by Kathryn Harrison
Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt (Also ‘Tis and Teacher Man)
The Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr
The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride
Fierce Attachments: A Memoir, by Vivian Gornick
This Boy’s Life: A Memoir, by Tobias Wolff
A Hole In The World: An American Boyhood, by Richard Rhodes
The unexpurgated edition of The Diary of Anne Frank, by Anne Frank
Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy
Prozac Diary and Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, by Lauren Slater
Light Years, by Le Anne Schreiber
Anna: A Daughter’s Life, byWilliam Loizeaux
Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi
Moments of Being, by Virginia Woolf
Lost In Place, by Mark Salzman
My Father’s House: A Memoir of Incest and Healing, by Sylvia Fraser
Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lessons, by Mitch Alborn
An American Childhood and For the Time Being, by Annie Dillard
Firebird and Still Life With Oysters and Lemons, by Mark Doty
Fault Line, by Laurie Alberts
Fat Girl: A True Story, by Judith Moore
Intoxicated By My Illness, by Anatole Broyard
This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death, by Harold Brodkey
Crossed Over: A Murder, A Memoir, by Beverly Lowry
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers
Breakup: The End of a Love Story, by Catherine Texier
Fugitive Spring: Coming of Age in the ’50s and ’60s, by Deborah Digges
Paradise: Piece By Piece, by Molly Peacock
Fear of Fifty, by Erica Jong
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, by Maxine Hong Kingston
Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman, by Nuala O’Faolain
A Walker in the City, by Alfred Kazin
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, by Mary McCarthy
All Over But the Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg
Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, by Elizabeth Wurzel
Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop, by Joseph Lelyveld
An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, by Kay Redfield Jamison
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron
Lucky, by Alice Sebold
My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor’s Tale, by James Atlas
Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris
Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, by Barbara Brown Taylor

The author of The Memoir and the Memoirist does not so much review these books as dissect them and that alone would make reading them along with his book worthwhile.