With memoir writing, if you do it right--if you tell the truth and do it with a full heart--you'll feel like your fly is constantly undone and everyone's pointing. A memoir requires you to be brutally honest. Otherwise it's like wearing sunglasses over a bruise: everyone knows you're hiding something and feels uncomfortable because of it. And being honest, too, is often the only reason people will forgive the self-indulgence of writing a memoir in the first place.
Through the haze of sex and wine I think of the other women who must have been here before me. I know it's too soon, that he'll disrespect me, that this will cost me. But even more I know the act of sex will bind me to him, that I'll want this again and again. I think to myself: another man's arms.
In front of an audience or alone at my desk, this book makes me feel naked.
This book, my memoir, is about what I've done and who I am, and only some of it is good and beautiful. It's hard not to think about who will read it--neighbors, the boss, the woman who cuts my hair. If a certain ex-boyfriend reads the book it won't take him long to figure out that as we were breaking up, I was screwing around with someone else, someone he never knew about.
My father was the drunk, the gambler, the one who couldn't keep a job, couldn't hold together a marriage. Most of his old friends wouldn't have anything to do with him--or their wives wouldn't let them.
My father died last year. Now I might lose my brother for the things I've written about our father. What I wrote was true and no secret, but my brother thinks it's wrong to talk about it. Most of the time, I don't blame him.
My mother's now a therapist, which came in handy for a while--until she heard the disapproval in a radio interviewer's voice after it came out that I was smoking pot at the age of four, and that at six, I drank beers through a straw. My mother cried herself into hysterics. For her, memoirs are fine in theory; they're supposed to be healing. But then mine started to become public, and it became about her being judged as a mother.
What kept me writing was the belief that secrets make you sick, on a personal level and beyond; and that much of the trouble surrounding us stems from shame and the compulsion to hide it. In my own family, the stigma of alcoholism shamed us all into silence, and in some way, this contributed to my father's drinking himself to death.
And beautiful things can happen. One day, writing at a nearby truck stop, I found myself editing a section about my father's grueling death from cirrhosis of the liver, and it was suddenly clear that it should be in past tense, not present: He can no longer sit upright became He could no longer sit upright. Page after page, with tears running down my face, I painstakingly changed each verb to the past tense. After that, the horrific nightmares I'd been having for months, about my father and his illness, finally stopped. And for the first time, my mother and I are close.
In the end, you write for yourself, and because you have to, and like all the hard choices we make, you learn to live with the consequences. The truth is that everyone has a story, and when woven together they make up the strange and wonderful portrait we call humanity. When I read an honest, well-written memoir, I feel less alone in the world, and sometimes, when things are very hard, that's enough to get me through the night.
Joelle Fraser is the author of Territory of Men, and lives in Portland.