AKA and the Hesitant Memoirist

Also Known As is not jargon limited to law enforcement. Many writers prefer to use a pen name, particularly if they wish to conceal their true identity. Protecting one’s privacy (not to mention dignity) is a strong motivator.

Occasionally, it’s a way to test the waters, to see if one’s writing is strong and effective when not tied to previous publishing success (J.K. Rowling writing under the name Robert Galbraith).

Some authors assume a gender specific name in the belief it will enhance their credibility or sales (Bronte sisters: Charlotte was “Currer Bell.” Emily was “Ellis Bell.” Anne was “Acton Bell”).

Sometimes, the birth name and the writing pseudonym are interchangeably (MarkTwain: Samuel Clemens). Occasionally, an author uses more than one name; for example, the mystery writer Ruth Rendell also published as Barbara Vine. Then there are names that just sound better, or easier to remember: Allen Stewart Konigsberg just doesn’t cut it like Woody Allen does.

Adopting a pen name can be useful when writing in a different genre–particularly if the new genre is frivolous or erotic?  It’s a way to have fun and still preserve your reputation with your “serious” audience. It may also be a way to protect your day job–the one that really pays the bills.

And then, there is the Hesitant Memoirist.

I’ve started a memoir a half dozen times; I’ve stopped a half dozen times. I suspect that most people, with a few decades behind them, have a “past” that might surprise those nearest or dearest to them. I find that there are incidents I’m not eager to share with my offspring.  Things I am embarrassed by, or at least consider an assault on my intelligence and self-esteem.

Many of us have asked ourselves, “How could I have been so (insert any word that applies)?”

Often, in looking back on our youthful decisions, we wonder why we made those choices; what strength or weakness in our character prompted us to act as we did. Were we given too much love or too little?  Were we raised by a struggling family with little money, or were we indulged? Were we looking for an equal in a relationship, or were we looking for an individual that would take care of us and protect us from the world? Were we victims of our own insecurities?

To answer these questions honestly, to take off the blinders and write a memoir candidly and objectively, is tantamount to running the Boston Marathon naked. And that’s just us; we may also be stripping others down to their underwear, even if we change names. But that creates another problem; when we try to protect others, we often misrepresent facts. Perhaps all memoirs are partially fiction, intentional or otherwise. Memory, after all, is slippery and can become distorted for a variety of reasons–not the least of which is self-protection.

I began a memoir ten years ago, but quickly realized that it was really about my parents and the first sixteen years of their marriage, so I changed to 3rd person and told their story. It will be published sometime this year, under the title A Chance of Today. That still leaves my own memoir hanging. Each time I’ve begun writing, I’ve hesitated and put it aside. I now realize that I need to find answers to specific questions. I’m not alone.

Many people I’ve talked with, who are in mid-life or later, have voiced a desire to write a memoir. Their reasons are varied, but the questions remain the same:

1) Why am I doing this?
2) Do I use my real name?
3) Do I change the names of others? Locations?
4) Will anyone be damaged, angered, distressed, or shocked by what I write?
5) Am I including anything that would slander or libel another? (We live in a litigious society.)
6) How candid am I willing to be? Is there any advantage to revealing closely held secrets?
7) Have I really fact checked myself?

I’ve developed some guidelines that I plan to follow; perhaps they will be helpful to you if you are contemplating your life’s story.

It seems that #1 is the only one we need to answer before beginning. If our “why” is for family, then our relationship with the members of our family will dictate the content of what we write. We need to consider values, beliefs, and family dynamics. Leaving revenge or ill-feelings out of the equation (never a good idea in a memoir), how do you want your family to see you–and how do you want them to see themselves through your eyes?

If you are writing your memoir because your lifelong endeavor has been to create, organize, or foster a philosophy, religion, movement, or institution, then your accomplishments and that of others will determine much of the content. Perhaps you were a volunteer in the Peace Corps and want to write your experiences (good and bad). Sharing your knowledge can be a valuable contribution.

On the other hand, if you are writing to publish, then you have to consider the appetite of the reading public. In 2016, not much is private or off-limits. I’ve read some astoundingly frank blogs lately, as well as browsed some memoirs that leave nothing to the imagination. But, the blogs have large followers, and the books are selling well. The question is how willing you are to expose yourself–or others? Are you prepared for the consequences? Is a best seller or a good review worth it?

Many candid memoirs are not harmful to a person’s dignity or reputation, but some can be. Consider what you want to reveal to colleagues, family, and friends. Younger family members often cannot comprehend that their parents were ever sexual, emotional beings–and they don’t want to be reminded.

Once you figure out the “why” of your memoir, it is easier to determine numbers 2 through 6.
If publication (and hopefully success) is the goal, and you are writing a “tell all,” then a pseudonym may be in order. Name changes (including locality) is also a safeguard. After all, most readers don’t care if you grew up in Kearny, Nebraska or Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s what happened to you that keeps them turning pages.

Number 7 is mainly to make sure you have names, dates, and events properly cited. Have you ever been enjoying a book, then had a “something’s off here,” moment and had to leaf back through the pages to try to sort it out? If so, you know how frustrating it can be. Spare your readers the aggravation.

It is easy to get chronology confused; you might remember a public event–at which you were present–taking place in 1988, but if it was 1987 or 1989, a reader who attended the same event will surely note it and doubt the veracity of your work. In all of my writing, fiction and nonfiction, I’ve learned to keep a separate document where I either outline names and dates before writing, or I update as I go along–usually both. It keeps me from making a number of errors, particularly in a longer work.

And my memoir? I’m still dwelling on number one. Maybe after writing a few more sample introductions, I’ll get it figured out.

Embellishment, Lies and The First Stone

A personal note to my readers and followers. Thank you for hanging in there when nothing new has been forthcoming. A family medical situation and some care taking has superseded writing lately. Life does get in the way of art.

In March, I am presenting a class titled Magic, Myth, and Memoir. While reviewing my notes,  I thought about how the word embellishment is being bandied about in conversations regarding NBC’s Brian Williams.

I’m occasionally guilty of adding or exaggerating details–or at least choosing colorful adjectives–to make a story more dramatic or entertaining to my audience. But do I lie? No, not deliberately, but I recall one embarrassing incident that still makes me cringe. I was teaching a university research course in the late 90s. One day, my students began discussing radicalism in the 60s and 70s. Realizing that I, unlike them, was alive at the time, they asked me about various speakers and leaders, including Angela Davis.

“A dynamic speaker,” I said. “She could electrify a room.”
“Did you see her in person?” one student asked.
“Yes,” I said, “in the Bay Area.”

I told them what I knew of her career, along with that of various student protesters and activists. It was only later, when I thought about it, that I realized I had not seen her in person. I couldn’t have, since by then I’d left California and was living in Colorado. It wasn’t a deliberate lie or embellishment on my part. I wasn’t trying to impress or even entertain my students, only answer their questions.

So why did I believe I’d been in the audience and heard her speak? Probably because I’d seen her on televised news programs, read numerous accounts of her arrest in Marin County, and followed the subsequent trial. It was a tumultuous time in America, and she and others were clear newsmakers. Still, I’d made a false statement, albeit unintentional. I can’t cast stones at Brian–or anyone else for that matter.

This raises a question; does a memoir lend itself to embellishment? Will readers accept a certain amount of theatrical tweaking of the events or facts? Where does a memoirist draw the line?

There’s a clear difference between an autobiography and a memoir. An autobiography is usually a fact-based chronology of the writer’s life from birth to the present. A memoir may only focus on a particular period or emotional aspect of the writer’s life. Memoirs tend to be intimate and  revealing. While the memoirist may recount dates, names, and events accurately, they might also magnify details for dramatic affect.

For example, in Frank McCourt’s best selling memoir, Angela’s Ashes, his descriptions are so powerful–and so jarring–that we visualize the hunger and the squalor on a visceral level. He frequently refers to his painful eye condition, “The sore spreads into my eyes anyway and now they are red and yellow from the stuff that oozes. . ..”

He could have just said, “I suffered from an eye condition most of my life which caused them to be red and sore,” but throughout his book he chooses to insert graphic descriptions of his chronic eye condition, a condition that becomes a symbol of the poverty and the lack of medical care he experienced growing up in mean circumstances.

If a person has a headache, even moderate, he or she will often use terms like, “My head is pounding,” or “I feel like my head is about to explode,” or “My head feels like it’s in a vice.” These frequently exaggerated expressions indicate that not only is someone experiencing pain, but he or she wants to describe it in dramatic terms for effect.

So, how do we write engaging narration without obscuring or distorting the truth?

Try this: If you’ve already written a first draft, choose several paragraphs. If you haven’t started yet, pick an incident that is especially vivid in your memory and write a few paragraphs. Since it is a memoir, you will have written it in first person.

Now convert your narrative to third person, rewriting it as though you were recounting an incident that happened to another individual. Examine the difference: which one is the most illuminating? Vibrant? Evocative? Which one is closer to the truth?

Switching to third person for clarification allows us to find the heart of our narrative without distorting the facts. For example, I recently drafted a memoir of my early childhood on a sheep ranch in Wyoming (where my parents struggled with my brother’s illness and financial woes).

It didn’t take me long to figure out that when I used the first person pronoun, it appeared I thought my childhood antics were cute. When I wrote in third person, it was clear that my mischievousness wasn’t charming, it was bratty.

In this case, my manuscript worked much better in third person, so I decided to turn the memoir into a limited biography of my parents’ life and the hardships they endured–as well as the love they shared–during the first sixteen years of their marriage. In the process, I portrayed my role accurately.

When I finally do write my first person memoir, I will try to achieve objectivity, stick to the truth, and, following McCourt’s example, let the power of description flow freely.