"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves." --Rainer Maria Rilke (©julenisse/Fotolia)

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

To Tell, or Not To Tell...

Ex-con, kitchen and craft maven Martha Stewart’s daughter, Alexis, has written a revealing book about growing up with her mommy dearest. Stewart says the book is all in fun, one big joke. Maybe. I’m sure Alexis will laugh all the way to the bank.

Remember what Frank McCourt said at the beginning of Angela’s Ashes?

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

Authors have been telling tales about their upbringings since the dawn of the age. Readers love to get a glimpse inside the misery of others, especially if those others are celebs. But what about us regular folks? How much is okay to tell? I wrestle with this in my own writing because our stories are rarely only our stories. They almost always involve other people.

I don’t want to embarrass my parents or my children. Even more so, I don’t want to wound them. But telling my truths requires a certain amount of disclosure. Maybe it goes to motive. Many of us write because it’s cathartic and we absolute have to write to heal. Or because we earnestly believe our story could help someone else. Or because we want to get back at someone. Sometimes it’s all three. Augusten Burroughs comes to mind. He is brutally honest and wickedly funny and leaves it all out there about his mean, mad and neglectful parents.

Some people are disgusted by those of us who “air our dirty laundry,” while others say we’re brave. Two friends recently began blogging about some serious and personal issues—one parenting a transgender child, the other revealing years of suffering in silence as a battered woman. I think they are very courageous women. I admire their candor and their strength.

One of the finest examples of a memoir that tells a lot of damning, albeit hilarious, stories about growing up with mental illness, addiction and neglect is Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle. Walls makes you wish it weren’t too late to call Child Protective Services but, at the same time, it is absolutely clear that she loved her parents in spite of the havoc they wreaked. Christina Crawford? Not so much.

I wrestle with how much to say about alcoholism, depression, narcissism, dementia and whatever else molds our character in my writing. Sometimes the truth hurts. That is not my aim. I want love to filter through. Maybe writing is like parenting. It requires discipline and you have to be tough. But in the end, you want your kids (and the parents you write about) to know how much you love them.


  1. My view is, fuck 'em. If there was ever a question how much any of them care about you, wait 'til one of 'em dies, and there's money on the table.

    But the problem about saying shit about people is that it always says more about you than it does about them. And this doesn't include your alleged friends who are secretly happy about your troubles or even believe you deserve it.

    Best advice: Ya' git what ya' git. Don't throw a fit.

    Of course, writers gotta' write. So keep it light. Like: "I used to laugh out loud when mother took dad's belt to my bare ass. Just a warm-up for when Himself got his angry self home from work, a pitcher of martinis under his belt..."

    I'd leave out the part where the siblings were applauding in the next room.

  2. Wish we were throwing back a couple of Boulevard Wheats on my deck, "Sandy." XOXO

  3. I'm with Sandy. If you don't tell your story completely, then it's not your story. Life isn't always pretty or nice. And I totally understand not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings. But if you really want to help people who are going down the road down which you have already traveled, you have to be honest. JMHO,
    Marj M

  4. Great post. I wrestle with this everyday as I'm working on my second book. My philosophy is tell it like it is, but while doing so, ask myself if it's essential to the story, and if it's a realistic perspective or a selfish one. Either way the story needs to be told, and if an author becomes too concerned with hurting people's feelings or offending readers by being too abrasive; then the spirit of the story is lost. I love your blog!


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