The Honesty Question
We've covered a lot of ground so far, and we're just beginning. All of the things that I've been talking about are the nuts and bolts and I believe deeply in the nuts and bolts of good writing. You won't acquire them overnight and you'll throw away a lot of things and you'll have a lot of failures. But, you will get those things. Those things can be learned. Just like playing a sport well, or playing an instrument, or learning how to perform a surgery, they can be learned. There's another, however, at the core of writing good memoir. It's something that you will not learn in any list of tips. I want to speak to that for a moment and it won't be the last time I speak to that, and that is the honesty question. It is about courage and ultimately, you're gonna have to locate your courage for yourself but I'll talk to you a little bit, at least from my own personal experience as somebody who has been doing that for a while and not without cost. I'm a pretty good one to stand up here and urg...
e you to put away your shame because I have had that experience and I have been criticized greatly for it. I have been called shameless, in fact. I have decided that it was not my job to take care of all the other characters in my life who didn't always take such great care of me. I'm gonna tell you a little sentence that I carry with me and pass on whenever I can: Write as if you are an orphan. Easy for me to say! I am an orphan! Being an orphan wasn't so easy but I don't have to worry anymore about what my parents will think, although it matters greatly to me that their memories be okay, that I be fair with them, and that I write ethically and compassionately, that I locate forgiveness. I don't believe in writing out of revenge, to stick it to any character and I hope that there's no character I've ever written about for whom I haven't attempted to locate compassion. But, ultimately, it is not your job to protect anybody in your life, whether somebody who hurt you badly, somebody you never speak to, or somebody that you see every year at Christmas and maybe lots of other times, too. It is not your job to worry about what they're going to think. That's the caretaking question and whether or not you are an orphan, the moment that you sit down at your laptop or your yellow legal pad or wherever it is you write, do so with utter freedom. If you have to make some changes, the moment to do it is not while you're doing this writing thing. We've already gotten an idea of just how many things you've got to be thinking about and working on. Let's not add "What's my mother gonna think?" to that list. This business of writing memoir is not about telling the world your dirty laundry. This is not let me just dump on you every horrible thing that ever happened. It is, first of all, for yourself, making sense of all the things that happened. They've happened. You can't undo them. You might give anything, anything you could, to make the story different but the story has happened. The story is what it is. Let it, at least, have some meaning, have some purpose. That's what you spoke of, John. You will not get your daughter back but you have spent the last 10 years trying to locate meaning and purpose out of the tragedy and that's the best and most healing thing that I can imagine a person who undergoes a tragedy, or a very hard experience, undertaking. I want to say that, as a person who has done this, it is a very good feeling to have told the truth. It is a very good feeling to know I will not go to my grave holding onto a secret.