by Jerry Waxler
This is part 2 of the essay, “Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?” Click here for part 1. Click here for part 3a, Guiding a Ghost Writer’s Interview, and Click here for part 3b
When you ask your parents if you can write their history, they might block you with statements like: “Let sleeping dogs lie,” or “I can’t remember all of that,” or “No one would care.” Instead of letting these objections frustrate you, use them as conversation starters. “Really?” you say. “Tell me more about what you mean.” Let them explain why remembering makes them uncomfortable. By quietly listening, you will change the mood from a debate to a collaboration, and will shed more light on their relationship to the past. When they finish, offer comforting, reassuring reasons why you want to work with them to overcome these obstacles. Here are a few insights that might help you address some common concerns about writing a memoir.
Writing my memoir means my life is over
After a visit with my parents, I stood up to go. My mother expressed her frustrated with the lack of physical affection between me and my father and insisted that we hug. As I put my arms around him, he laughed nervously and exclaimed. “What? Am I dying?” He implied that a hug meant the end of his life, when in fact it was intended to be a celebration. Many people make a similar mistake about memoir writing, assuming it means that life is over. When you take the time to write one, you realize that it lets you reap life’s lessons and joys.
I’m too boring
When I grew up, my parents apparently believed we ought to hide anything that makes us look different. They wanted to look average. People who grew up in that generation became so accustomed to pretending they were like everyone else, that they came to believe it themselves.
In the twenty first century, our fascination with memoirs has flipped that convention upside down. In the Memoir Age, we have become curious about other people and assume they are curious about us. Instead of hiding messy emotions in order to appear boring, we reveal internal conflicts that bring us to life.
Hidden within ordinary life, you will discover that you are utterly unique. For example, my childhood in a row home in Philadelphia seemed thoroughly ordinary. Perhaps my after-school job at my dad’s drugstore made me different from most of my peers. I didn’t know anyone else who worked for their father. Digging deeper, I recall my dad’s brother who had achondroplasia, or dwarfism. When I was a teenager, I went with Uncle Harry to help him collect rent from the apartment buildings my grandfather owned, and I felt disturbed by the children who stopped and stared at his short legs and head too large for his body. Harry’s problem was visible to everyone, but Dad’s nephew, Jules, was another matter. Handsome, athletic, and a brilliant scholar, Jules graduated medical school by the age of 21, and was a psychiatrist by the time he was 24, when some secret turmoil caused him to hang himself. The family tried to cover up the tragedy, writing Jules out as if he never existed. Before the memoir age, it seemed natural to hide these facts. Now, I wish my father had been a memoirist, and left a record of how these complex experiences made him feel.
I have read and studied 200 memoirs, and continue to be fascinated by the enormous variety of human experience. Memoir authors write about growing up, about families, hardship, war, travel, spirituality, and so on. By sharing their authors’ lives, memoirs promise to deepen and expand our ability to live together on this planet.
I refuse to criticize my parents
To write about your parents, you must break down two sets of facades. The ones that block them from admitting to you that they are real people, and the ones that block them from admitting their own parents are real, as well.
Many people believe it’s a sin to criticize their parents. As a result they are stuck with shallow, unexplored images. I am glad that we are beginning to open our minds to an honest evaluation of those relationships . According to child psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, we need our parents’ stories in order to stay healthy ourselves. Authentic stories allow us to honor our parents for who they really are, rather than some glossy, idealized image.
To open up about their younger years, your parents will have to accurately portray their relationship with their parents. Certainly they might need some convincing. Let them see that you are not looking to blame anyone but only want to understand the realities in which your ancestors lived. By convincing them to reveal their childhood experience, you will be encouraging them to develop more compassionate relationships with their parents just as you are trying to do yourself.
What’s the point of returning to the past?
At first it might seem logical that writing a memoir would detract from focus on the present. However, almost everyone already keeps a photo album for the purpose of hanging on to the past. Flipping through the album, you glimpse echoes of the past and savor its pleasure.
Beneath the smiles in those photos were more complex, ambiguous feelings. Writing awakens that complexity. Perhaps fear of writing about the past is a way to try to resist the pain that might be lurking under the surface. If your parents are attempting to make hard times disappear by pretending they never happened, their strategy cannot possibly succeed. Burying emotional pain is like burying toxic waste. When it emerges from its hiding place, it is still poisonous. By writing about it, you can, help them disarm it and find embedded lessons, forgotten friendships, and the strength that carried them through.
By getting those earlier times on paper, you give them the opportunity to add meaning and order to what otherwise might seem like a chaotic batch of memories. I have found that memoir writing is compatible with a vibrant, energetic focus on the present moment.
My sister has it all wrong
With stunning regularity my mom and her sister argued about their family memories. Mom said something about her parents’ unhappy marriage and my aunt would vehemently disagree. “That’s not the way it happened.” A battle ensued, each of them intent to prove her version to be true and the other false.
To accommodate heated differences of opinion, interview the warring parties separately. Listen openly to both versions. You will no doubt favor one interpretation over the other, but keep your favoritism to yourself. Maintain harmony by validating each person’s version of the truth. “That’s the way you remember it. I’m okay with that.”
Learn more about the pressures in the family by trying to understand how the hot button works. What words or details throw them into a tizzy? If you can tiptoe around the edgy topic, you may be able to gain insight that helps portray the pressure without raising hackles. If you hoped to learn the Real Truth, such irreconcilable disagreements might frustrate you. However, memoirs do not offer an absolute version of truth, but only each person’s best recollection. That’s what memoir writing is all about. Delving into their recollection helps you understand more about them. And they played such an important part in your life, you learn about yourself as well. In the next part of this essay, I offer insights into the process of interviewing them.
Click here to read about “be here now” while writing a memoir.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
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