This morning, I had the house to myself. This doesn’t often happen, since we both work at home. After a second cup of coffee, I stripped to get into the shower, then remembered I’d planned to clean the kitchen floor and vacuum a few throw rugs. My choices were limited: I could go to the trouble of getting dressed again before doing the housework, or I could just get out my electric broom and whip through the cleaning au naturel. I was alone after all. I won’t furnish details-suffice it to say my final decision was extremely liberating.
As I worked, I thought about the self-imposed restrictions we place on our writing. What should be limited? What should be exempt? In fiction, we have considerable latitude in making decisions about language, nudity, sex, and violence. Other than plagiarism or defaming a living person, we only have to consider what kind of book or story we want to write, and what is needed to make it authentic. When we determine our target audience, the boundaries are fairly clear. We have a framework within a particular genre, and aimed at a particular group of readers. Assuming we have good judgment, we usually can rein in our writing to conform.
It’s often said that all writing is autobiographical, and to an extent I believe that is true, at least in a general sense. Science fiction and fantasy might be the exception, but writers frequently include their experiences, preferences, and attitude into the development of both character and plot. Again, not a problem in fiction.
Nonfiction is where the dilemma often occurs. Should the writer be free to write the facts–and their opinion–without restraint, or should he or she consider who might be offended, hurt, or shocked by the revelations? Can our prose be naked, or must it be clothed?
Consider a memoir. Usually, memoir will involve some family history. While the family history in itself might not be a problem, it becomes controversial when other family members are disturbed by the material. Sometimes it is only a matter of different perspectives; at other times, the distress is because unpleasant facts or secrets are revealed.
When publishing a memoir, we also have to consider the danger of breaching our own privacy limits. It’s not always easy to achieve a balance between what makes engaging reading (and, hopefully, book sales) and personal risk.
How do we set those limits? Do we protect ourselves from humiliation and criticism, or do we simply state unvarnished facts?
I wrestle with this every time I add a line to my memoir, or write a scene that draws on my own experience. I am coming around to the notion that I need to develop my own literary litmus test. I still working on it, but I have a few points in mind.
1. Follow the “need to know” rule. Will the information, if included, enhance either the readability or the interest level of the work?
2. Is it self-indulgent? Is it motivated by vanity, justification, rationalization, sensationalism, drama? Confession as a means to expiate guilt?
3. Who is the absolute last person I would want to read the story, book, essay? What would their reaction be if they read it? How would it affect our relationship?
4. Would the general reader care one way or the other; that is, could the material cause harm with no benefit, thus not be worth the risk?
5. How do I want to be remembered? As a writer? A person?
“A memoir is an invitation into another person’s privacy.”
“If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.”