“What makes writing a memoir difficult is harder to quantify. Is it learning to know when you’re ready to talk about something? Is it seeing the structure in a lumpen mass of fact? Is it finding out what you were really like as other people saw you? Yes to each. Darin Strauss, Brainy Quote
I am very pleased to feature Laura McHale Holland in this guest post on one reason not to publish a memoir. Laura, the author of several award-winning memoirs, and I met online several months ago. I’ve had the pleasure of reading and reviewing her most recent memoir, Resilient Ruin: A Memoir of Hope Dashed and Reclaimed—a riveting coming-of-age memoir about surviving childhood abuse and finding forgiveness.
One Reason Not To Publish A Memoir
I was selling books at a local arts and crafts faire recently, and as the hours passed by, I became acquainted with Christi, a woman showcasing a variety of handmade goods at a nearby table. Late in the afternoon, when no members of the public were passing through, I bought a few lavender sachets from her, and she purchased my childhood memoir, Reversible Skirt, from me.
Christi was drawn to Reversible Skirt—which recounts what it was like to grow up in the shadow of my mother’s suicide in the 1950s, a time when taking one’s own life was considered to be a shameful act best not mentioned—because her mother was passed out, inebriated, daily. Christi said that at age four, she became like a mother to her two younger siblings. She felt she would relate to both the story of my childhood and its sequel Resilient Ruin, which recounts how I ultimately came to terms with my unstable, often heart-wrenching teen and young adult years.
As we were packing up at the end of the day, Christi asked, “Was it cathartic for you to write and publish your memoirs?”
I am often asked questions like this, and my response doesn’t vary: “No, it wasn’t.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Really? I thought it would be very therapeutic, after the start you got in life.”
I then explained that, while healing is a lifelong process, most of my healing from childhood trauma took place before I began my first memoir, and when it comes to publishing a book, I don’t think catharsis for the author should be a goal.
See, I make a distinction between writing as a form a self-help, which for me is largely journal writing that nobody else sees, and writing for publication. I believe the latter should have a higher purpose than healing oneself or just telling one’s story. I also believe that in writing any book or story another primary purpose should be to create the very highest quality literature possible. The second objective is often reinforced when the meaning of the story becomes clarified for the writer, which often occurs during the writing process.
Thus, for anyone wishing to write a memoir that deals with traumatic experiences, I think it’s a good idea to find emotional relief and healing through friendships, therapy and support groups devoted to overcoming past abuse. Finding compassionate resources outside of the writing and publishing process makes it easier to face the blank page with a clear head and a mission that will benefit others.
A memoir of difficult life experiences could have many possible missions: to impart information in an eloquent way; to take readers on an absorbing emotional journey that leaves them with new insights; to broach subjects that need to be discussed but often aren’t, so that people who are experiencing similar trauma may have an easier time getting help; to let people who feel isolated by heartbreak know they are not alone; or to leave behind an accurate, meaningful slice of life for future generations; to name several.
Now, I don’t think a person should be singularly focused on a memoir’s mission. There is a time, especially in the drafting stage, when it’s essential to just let the words flow, and if feelings come up, it’s important to let them flow out, too. But keeping in the back of one’s mind that a memoir project has a higher purpose than healing one’s own heart will, I believe, add a depth that otherwise would not be there.
Knowing a book’s higher purpose can be immensely helpful during the editing phase, too. When thinking about whether to include a particular scene or how much detail to go into, you can ask yourself such questions as: What purpose does this scene serve? How is it likely to affect the reader? Have I already communicated the same thing in another scene? Does it tell the truth? Am I being honest with myself—and my readers? How is the memoir improved by including this? Where will shortening or expanding certain sections increase the book’s power?
None of this is to say it isn’t exhilarating to publish a memoir. It is! But it’s the attainment of a worthy goal, I believe, that sparks this jubilation. What could be better than writing a memoir that has the potential to enrich the lives of others, not just now, but possibly for generations to come?
This is also not to say that authors who pen memoirs about difficult life experiences do not benefit. Many such writers, including me, gain invaluable insights about themselves in the process. But too often readers and writers reflexively pigeonhole the craft of memoir as therapy for authors. This leads to proliferating misperceptions about, and in some cases denigration of, a genre that has the power to enlighten, educate and inspire in ways distinct from other literary forms.
Thank you, Laura for your insightful exploration of the memoir writing process. For me, it was a matter of timing. I had to have some emotional distance from the story to be able to craft my traumatic life events that would help readers connect with their own stories–a higher purpose, as you say. Journaling, counseling and support from friends played a big part in preparing me to write my story, which in the end led me to self-discovery and healing.
Whether penning a memoir, writing fiction and poetry, or telling stories live, Laura McHale Holland’s aim as an artist is to engage people and touch them in ways that matter. Resilient Ruin is Laura’s fourth book. Previously, she released a childhood memoir, a collection of flash fiction and an anthology, all of which won awards. Two of her short plays were recently produced in Sonoma County, where she lives with her husband and their two tiny, rambunctious dogs. For a free ebook, stop by http://lauramchaleholland.com.
A teenage girl breaking free. A cunning classmate on the prowl. Can she recover after they collide?
Orphaned as a child, fourteen-year-old Laura finally rebels against her abusive guardian. Living on dreams, rock ’n’ roll, and kisses in moonlight, she believes whatever comes next can’t be worse than what she’s already endured. She has no idea how far she will fall before she can build a better life. Resilient Ruin is a poignant personal story that recounts a rocky, ultimately inspiring journey. If you like brave, unaffected heroines; striking scenes and characters; and pacing that keeps you turning page after page, you’ll relish this masterful memoir of survival and learning to forgive.
How about you? So, what will you say if you meet Christi, or another memoir fan like her, and she asks whether writing and publishing your memoir was cathartic?
Laura has graciously offered to give away a copy of her memoir to a commenter whose name will be selected in a random drawing.
We’d love to hear from you. Please join in the conversation below~
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