Writing and Publishing What Scares You

memoir writing laptop-3087585_960_720I’ve published more than twenty works of fiction over the past seven or eight years, but none of them has given me so much pause – so much stick your fingers in your ears and go LALALALA – as publishing the book I’ve been working on for at least ten years: a memoir of my relationship with my mother and my brother.

Don’t hurt me, but I find it pretty easy to dash off 50,000 words of a rough draft of a novel in a month’s time (I’ve won NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo multiple times), polish it, and stick it up on KDP. I also don’t have a problem writing nonfiction – as long as it’s happening to someone else.

This memoir, though.

Here’s the deal: About fifteen or twenty years ago, after my mother’s mind began to fail, I began keeping a journal. I kept it going after she died, as then I had to deal with my brother, whom I had good reason to stay away from, over the estate and our family home. It wasn’t until long after I’d begun publishing fiction that it occurred to me to pull the journal entries together into a memoir – which is when I started with the fingers in the ears and so forth.

So I googled “fears about writing a memoir” and discovered I wasn’t alone. I even found a listicle (imagine that!) of nine ways to handle a memoirist’s fear that either they will be harmed by writing their stories, or their words will harm others. The approaches this article suggests are:

1.      Write your first draft without concern. This is what I did – I began writing for myself, to myself, and without ever planning to show it to anyone. That allowed me to be freer in telling my story.

2.      Change names and identifying details. You could call this the “women’s self-help magazine” approach, I guess. (I didn’t do this.)

3.      Be harder on yourself than everyone else. Basically, don’t make yourself the hero, and don’t write for revenge. I don’t think I did either of those. In a lot of instances, I tried to show both sides of the situation (well, up to a point, anyway).

4.      Tell people you’re writing about them. I sent the final draft to most of the people whose names crop up in the story – not the lawyers and not my brother, but pretty much everybody else.

5.      Be selective about what you share. This is another admonition to avoid writing for revenge. When editing the book, I did soften the edges of certain events, and some sections of the journal got left out. This also helped me focus on the main story.

6.      Stop anticipating what will bother others. I think a lot of novelists will relate to this. I’ve read about writers who put people they know in their novels, with the names changed and some identifying details altered, and the reactions of their real-life characters vary; often they don’t see themselves at all. With my memoir, I was gratified that the people in it who read the manuscript had no objections to what I’d written about them.

7.      Wait for people to die. That was my initial plan, but the thing kept bugging me. Eventually I realized I’d never get any peace if I didn’t publish it.

8.      Prioritize relationships. In other words, don’t tell other people’s stories. Tell your story, hard truths and all, and tell it from your point of view.

9.      Prioritize your truth. Emotional and verbal abuse figures heavily in my story, and I wouldn’t have much of a story if I didn’t bring it up. I’ll be honest, though: this is the part where I flinched. I kept dancing away from finishing the project. But as Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

In the end, I overcame my fear and finished Mom’s House, and stuck it up on KDP. I’m bracing myself for reviews both good and bad. And I’m looking forward to getting back to writing fun stuff.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

16 thoughts on “Writing and Publishing What Scares You”

  1. Hi Lynne,
    I’m so glad that you found my list of nine ways to handle your fears useful! Thank you very much for citing it.
    My father’s mind also failed and I also have a ‘challenging’ relationship with a brother. I wish that I’d kept a journal during that time, but instead I just hid behind prolific writing of the nonfiction kind. Again a similarity to you, but sans the journal.
    I look forward to reading Mom’s House and to checking out your blog.

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Karen! And thanks for writing that article. It was indeed useful to me, and I hope it helps others face their own fears about writing their stories.

  2. All good points.

    A few years ago I began to write my own memoir/autobiography. Sine both my parents are dead I have no concerns in that area. my theory was that my journey might provide hope to someone else.

    I stopped that process several months into it. Maybe I just wasn’t ready. maybe I simply don’t need to tell that story. Maybe I still will.

    In any case, the level of self-analysis needed can be painful even in a story less traumatic than mine. Telling it can be both cathartic and grueling.

    So, I’d add – make sure you are ready and willing to look in the mirror and honest enough to face what is there. It’s not only about others, it’s mostly about yourself. Oh, and that you are doing it for the right reasons.

  3. I’ve also been writing my memoirs, but only in bits and pieces, just vignettes in between my fiction books. These are excellent points to remember, Lynne, so thanks for that. Now I’m wondering: how did you feel when you were done with yours? Relieved? Scared of the next step (public opinion)? Did you exorcise your demons? I would think setting the story free would be very liberating. Hope so, anyway.

    1. It’s funny, Melissa. I was very relieved when I finished writing the final scene in the book — it was like that act gave me closure in a way that resolving the real-life dispute didn’t.

      Then the fear set in — not fear of public opinion, but of mentally reliving the events during the editing phase. One of my beta readers, who’s mentioned in the book, said reading it was exhausting. And she knew most of it already. 😀

      Anyway, I had to put my editing cap firmly on my head and treat the story as any other book in order to get it done. And yes, sending it out the door was a big relief. 🙂

  4. I’m definitely going to grab a copy of Mom’s House. I’m curious to see if your bad experience with a parent’s estate is similar to mine. It sounds like an interesting read.

  5. Great ideas. Not that I want to write a memoir, but if I did, I would follow your advice. Well, maybe not, because I’d be inclined to lie–poetic license, or something–when it came time to putting words on paper. Did the memoir help you come top conclusions about the people and events or provide other forms of closure?

    1. Because I wrote the entries over such a long period of time, I came to conclusions during the writing process, sure. What was interesting was re-reading some of the entries and realizing I’d forgotten the conclusions I’d come to at the time. And in one memorable case, I discovered I’d forgotten how many little incidents had been packed into a single day. 😀

      There’s a section in the book on the effects of emotional abuse on the abused. I did the research for that and wrote that section late last year. I found it eye-opening how much this stuff had impacted me.

  6. Lynn,
    Loved your self-help article LoL. If you ever post your 9 headings to Pinterest they would be winning Writing Quotes pins, you could link to your memoir.

  7. -hugs- That was incredibly brave. I hope this memoir will be the emotional equivalent of casting off a mill stone from around your neck. Bravo.

  8. Hi Lynne, I also wrote my memoirs, called it autobiography, and published the second draft. I was amazed that I didn’t get complaints, as I recollected some unpleasant happenings, but the worst was a letter to my sister that “He hadn’t been mentioned by name”. Happy reading, Mike Lord.

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