The client concluded her heart-rending story in tears. The uncle who molested her when she was a child was long dead, but the client glanced around nervously, as if he were eavesdropping.
“You can’t put any of that in,” she said.
“But it’s the heart of your story,” I said. “It would be dishonest to leave it out.”
“But it’s painful.”
The renowned ghostwriter Cecil Murphey says that, “Your most honest writing becomes your best writing.”
There’s really no way around it, especially in your memoir. You can be bland or vague and your readers will not turn the page, or you can be honest and authentic and your readers not only will want to know what happened, but they will relate to you as a person, a kindred spirit.
They will sympathize and even empathize. Your story becomes their story, at least for a little while, and they will be honest right there with you. And that is an author’s great gift to readers.
You can’t worry about what people will think. You don’t have to invite lawsuits for slander or libel, but you have to tell the truth. If you are stalled in telling your life story because you are afraid of what someone might think, dig a little deeper.
Ask yourself why you care. My client decided that it was because whenever she thought of him, she still saw herself as a small child and her uncle as an authority figure. In fact, she is a mature, wise adult and the uncle is no longer a threat—and was an authority figure only because he was a bully.
She gained wisdom and strength as a result of decisions she made (some tiny, some huge) that changed the course of her life once she was old enough to have a little bit of control over things. That is where her story lies.
While many people are (thankfully) spared outright abuse, everyone faces hardships. We read because we yearn to dive into the pool of our shared humanity. We want to learn what others went through and what they did and became as a result.
Don’t shortchange yourself or your readers by hiding your authentic self. Do the hard work of slogging through whatever it is that holds you back.
For inspiration, look to Coming Clean, Kimberly Rae Miller’s memoir about growing up with a father who was a hoarder; Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines his Former Life on Drugs, by Marc Lewis; or The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls’s best-seller about growing up with a brilliantly eccentric—and alcoholic—father and free spirit mother who chafed under the demands of running a household.
--Ann Kellett, Ghostwriter