Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Truth: Setting You Free or Sharper Than A Two-Edged Sword?

Available at Amazon
I have been reading Pat Conroy’s book, The Death of Santini, the memoir of his tumultuous family life and his abusive father. Pat Conroy has been on a lifelong mission to exorcise the demons of his childhood since he first started writing almost four decades ago. His breakthrough novel, The Great Santini, was made into a feature movie (1979), starring Robert Duvall cast into the dubious role of his father (referred to as the Great Santini).  Although a work of fiction, the story was as real and vivid to Mr. Conroy as any autobiographical work.

As I read Mr. Conroy’s book, I sometimes feel like a witness to the very personal, exposed, and train-wrecked lives of his family. I almost have to look away from all the emotional gore. If you’re familiar with Conroy’s writing, you will know the absolute elegance with which he writes. He is a master at weaving stories and almost a poet with his words. His books are a treat to read, and his writing is raw and emotional.

But I'm not going to write a book review today. What all this really brings to mind for me is a question: Just how honest and naked do you get in your writing? On one hand, stripping down to our honesty skivvies is what keeps the writing compelling, authentic and resonating for a reader.

On the other hand, however, is the dilemma for memoirists, autobiographers and essayists: How naked do you allow your family, friends or lovers to be in order to tell your story? What is your ethical obligation to them? Is there one? To what degree do you strip them down in the name of disclosure and honesty?

Sometimes, after a particularly grueling chapter in The Death of Santini, I wonder how his sisters and brothers must feel about his work, or the lovers and ex-wives he’s named (no pseudonyms here). When The Great Santini was published in 1976, it about ripped his family apart. His father was exposed as a mean s.o.b, and although he fervently denied the truth of Pat’s story, the shadow never lifted. In this current book, Mr.Conroy is no less ruthless in his description of his youngest brother’s suicide, his beloved mother’s flaws, and the tenuous and nasty relationship he has had with one of his sisters. With equal honesty he cuts to the quick of his own flaws with merciless skill.

From a writer’s point of view, this kind of memoir can be very spiritually and emotionally healing—a letting of emotional poison that has festered in the heart. From a reader’s point of view, it makes for scintillating and titillating reading, or may even allow for their own self-examination through the author's story. From the family’s, ex-spouses’, friends’ and lover’s point of view though, it may be a nightmare of biased truth. No writer of personal information can tell a truth that is absolute; it is always brought through a human sieve of emotions, perceptions and interpretations.

How much truth is appropriate? Do you seek permission to write about family, or stick defiantly to the belief to never seek permission to tell your story (it is, after all, yours). What is the ethical responsibility or is there one?

Next time you read an essay or memoir, or even a work of fiction with a thinly veiled personal story, keep in mind these are all questions every author has to answer. 

How do you answer them?

Thanks to M.L. Swift and the PBC blog hop. 
Keep reading and writing,

Julie

57 comments:

  1. Julie,

    What a great post (seriously...it's starting to sound cliche, but it's truth)! This is exactly the kind of article I look for from the PBC: a little about the book, but more so the questions it spurs in each of us. What did it get us thinking about?

    You asked the question on my lips each time I write, whether it be autobiographical or something that draws from life, but is fictional. How much do I tell?

    With the book I discussed this month, Running with Scissors, I found myself asking the same. The author went there with everything. And it had its repercussions. I read about the fallout afterwards, the denials, and the addition of a disclaimer on his Amazon page.

    Because you're right—a memoir is based on one person's interpretation of the events. And Burroughs acknowledges that.

    Honestly, I'm hoping for that kind of fearlessness in my writing, but also for a kind heart, as in The End of Your Life Book Club. Hopefully, I can find a perfect balance of the two...that seems to be my voice. A little bit naughty, a little bit nice.

    Thanks for your wonderful submission this month!

    M.L. Swift, Writer

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    1. I read Running with Scissors a couple of years ago, so I'll be curious to read your take on it. That is another great example of a train wreck with words. I read Conroy's My Reading Life a couple of years ago too and loved that book. I developed a slight crush on Pat Conroy after that. ;) Like The End of Your Life Book Club, it tells the story of his life through the books he read. His mother too was very influential in his love of literature.

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    2. You know, at first I was just going to tap on RWS and talk more about the voice of the piece, but I started running long (shocker) and talked more about the book and less about his voice. I liked his voice and yes, it was a train wreck. I couldn't listen to that voice with every book, though, but I do want to read further works by him. I think I've developed a man-crush, myself, on Burroughs' ability to weave a tale, despite lacking the strong foundation of a more formal education.

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  2. What was that meme that pops up every now and again? "It's your story, if they don't like how they are portrayed, they should have been nicer."

    I literally have people who send me emails and letters (family and old acquaintances) on a daily basis asking if I am ever going to write a memoir, and could I leave them out of it. My answer is: If I do, the answer is no.

    The problem with many of the questions is that people only want outsiders to see them as good - it's amazing when you think about it. They'll ruin their children/family, but heaven forbid if a perfect stranger doesn't think they are the greatest.

    On the other hand - one must always say, "These are the events as I saw them." and "Here is the proof available to back me up."

    A great, thought provoking blog! And yes, I've used personal experience in every single book.

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    1. Tonya, you're a great example of someone who weaves her pain into her stories, and does it well.

      I still struggle if we have a right to be the self-ordained executioner of truth when it comes to other people. I'm not sure. Did my parents hurt me? Is my marriage as it should be? I can write about it, but at what cost. It's like a pebble in the pond.

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    2. It's one reason I don't write/read memoirs. It's too subjective in many cases. What one child remembers as a great childhood, another remembers things in a different light. I agree about subjective memories - think very carefully first. What colored the memories? Illness? Your own wants and needs? etc. The mind has many tricks up it's sleeves, and will skew things, even if we don't want it to. Does that make the emotions attached any less valid? No. But one should always tread very carefully with memories.

      Although I'm not talking about just memories :) The reason so many often ask me if I'm going to write a memoir and to leave them out is I have their letters, other physical proof of the creation of physical/emotional scars (pictures, recordings), many witnesses. They shouldn't have done it if they didn't want others to know what they did.

      Would I ever really write a memoir? No. But I will use all of that for fodder in my fiction.

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    3. Here's a thought, and I think what truly motivates many memoirists: who would benefit from reading your story? That might depend on your level of healing, but I think readers learn how to think about hurt and pain through someone who has been there. Life isn't always rosy. But yes, how to do that well is still the question that remains.

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  3. Good point that it exposes family members in ways they might not appreciate. There's always three sides to any story though.

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  4. I can't judge Conroy as I was fortunate to grow up with loving parents and in a relatively happy home, so if this was therapeutic for him or he felt the truth of his experiences needed to be exposed I am not one to say otherwise. But for me I know I would ever put anything too personal "out there." I'm much too guarded and private. I have used personal experiences as inspiration for aspects of my stories though, I almost think that is inevitable when we are writing.

    Very thought-provoking post as always, Julie.

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    1. Julie, like you, I would avoid judging any writer. I love his books. His writing is amazing. I actually think he does a very good job in his balance-- that he loves his family is obvious. That he struggles in anger is equally obvious.

      But as I read his book, I turn it back to myself, as a fledgling nonfiction writer, how much will I tell? Not sure I have a good answer yet.

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  5. Julie, I'm running out of adjectives to describe your writing, and this post in particular. Beautifully written. Heartfelt. Honest. I bought Running With Scissors when it first came out, thinking because of the cover and title that it would be a hilarious read! Wrong! It was hard for me (and still is) to believe the wackiness of it all. I especially have never been able to get the dog food chapters out of my head. (I don't want to give away any info for those who haven't read it!)
    Now...since I just completed MY memoir, I'll briefly comment on it. During the writing process, I read or heard somewhere that writing memoir is MUCH more difficult than writing fiction. That made me feel a lot better, because I struggled and struggled. What to include. What not to include. Who might get upset with me? But I want to tell MY memories, MY joys and sorrows. I think I did a pretty good job of sharing just the right amount of information.Thanks again for a beautifully written post.....and for being my friend!

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    1. Becky, I really appreciate your feedback precisely because you have wrestled with this issue. Your book, of course, is on my "to read" list. I look forward to seeing how you handled that delicate balance.

      It's interesting you should use "Running with Scissors" as a contrasting example. Mike (above in comments) wrote his post about this book today (or did you read that already?). (http://mlswift.me/2014/01/15/pbc-running-with-scissors/) In my comments to his post, I made a similar comment. I found his book to be almost a little too brash,edgy and "in your face". I also commented that I found Burrough's brother's book, "Look Me In The Eye: My Life With Asperger's" such a different perspective of the same childhood. Interesting.

      Thank you for your kind comments and supportive feedback and for offering your insights, very well grounded, into the discussion.

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    2. Thanks for mentioning "Look Me in the Eye". I have a son who is mildly Asperger's. I might take a look just to help gain some understanding. And it sounds like reading it together with "Running" would make for an excellent study in perspective!

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    3. Rebecca, I read "Look Me In The Eye" several years ago when I was working at the college with students with disabilities. It was a fascinating read because he wrote about his life and perspective with Asperger's. I felt like I had so many "ohhhhh" moments of insight! He was able to articulate it all so beautifully.

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  6. Julie, this raises such interesting questions! I sometimes forget when reading a memoir that snarks at folks that those are real people. I'd hate to write anything hurtful about my family--we all really do like each other, and it seems like it's so hard to avoid (after all, even just starting by noting that we were always short of cash implies a kind of criticism of my parents). I think I'll stick with fiction1

    Yet even there, I worry: will people think that if I make the protag's Mom kind of unhelpful, that I feel that way about my Mom? What about that crumbling marriage--mine is sound, thank you! yet we all know that some part of us is in everything we write, right? Or can we ever convince people that we just read "Dear Abby" and make stuff up?!

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    1. When I read fiction, unless the author indicates that it is personal, I never assume it's about or related to real people. Being a writer, I know that most characters are composites of many people we have met. Conroy in both The Great Santini and Prince of Tides was fairly transparent about the stories being fictionalized truth, which is perhaps its own, unique genre!

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  7. I haven't read the other comments yet, but I am really looking forward to it. Julie, this exact question is why my blog is just sitting there lately. I am stuck and do not know where to go or how to write about my own "demons" or even my own plans without involving others who may not want to be involved in my writing.
    I will say that I do not think the therapy of release is worth the pain it could cause innocent or not so innocent bystanders. Susie

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    1. Oh Susie, I'm right there with you-- not only in my blog writing (especially my other one) but also in any kind of book I'm kicking around. So, as yet, I've not written it. My desire is to write a book in honesty that helps other people in their journey, not one that rips at people and is a release for me. I must write in love and compassion, as well as honesty. Not that I was planning any kind of tell-all, but any pain I touch on in my own life is going to invariably involve others. Bah-- how to do that well is the big question, isn't it?

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    2. I think the two of you have already answered your own questions :)

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    3. Oh that I could. You know me, Tonya, I just endlessly process. ;)

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  8. I strip my characters down to a point. I develop them as the story progresses, rather than try to explain them to the reader all at once. This is usually how we get to know people. Over time. Not in one quick setting.

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  9. This is a great question, Julie. There are often multiple sides to the story when a large dysfunctional family is involved. I probably wouldn't read Conroy's book anyway because I view tell-all celebrity memoir as attention-seeking and sometimes cruel. I favor the small personal memoirs of ordinary (and not so ordinary but not famous) people.

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    1. I love the smaller memoirs too, Pat. Although, I have to say Pat Conroy has done a great job with his childhood carnage. He ends up coming to a place of healing or at least acceptance and is able to offer grace to the father who hurt him so deeply, and perhaps to himself in the process.

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  10. I try to keep my fictional characters fictional and my non-fiction (often about family members) humorous and light. I'm just not comfortable with exposing anyone's vulnerabilities.

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    1. I think unless you feel a need to dig in and get dirty, this is probably a good way to go with writing. Fiction is so fun precisely because you can give your characters snippets of all the neurosis you or others around you possess without actually naming names! ;)

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  11. That is one of my major weaknesses as a writer. There is this stop gap in my brain that inhibits honesty. But the really good stuff is written by brave writers who aren't afraid to show their scars and sadly, that's not me. Maybe I'll grow.

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    1. Or maybe, Elizabeth, it's in HOW you show them. I've been having this conversation with a few friends on Facebook and I think we all have different comfort levels with this topic. I was able to write an essay that was featured on BlogHer about my emotional struggles when my son was first diagnosed with cancer. That was very raw and honest for me, but it didn't point a finger towards others. Food for thought, anyway.

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  12. Revealing personal truth takes a lot of courage. In everything except a non-fiction work-in-progress, I make sure the veil isn't too thin. In the non-fiction piece, it's all out there. It can be a little scary and requires some discretion in the presentation of it. It's difficult to do well, I think.

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    1. I agree about the level of difficulty-- not only to tell your own story with honesty, but how to do that what our story overlaps with the stories of others. I like how you phrased this: requires some discretion in the presentation of it.

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  13. Hi Julie, just stopping by to say how delightful your blog is. Thanks so much for sharing. I have recently found your blog and am now following you, and will visit often. Please stop by my blog and perhaps you would like to follow me also. Have a wonderful day. Hugs, Chris
    http://chelencarter-retiredandlovingit.blogspot.ca/

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    1. Thank you so much for stopping by, Chris. I look forward to checkign out your blog.

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  14. I'm not sure if I could tell all my family secrets. To do it, I would have to be willing to put all my flaws out there as well. I'd also have to accept whatever my family's reaction would be--good or bad.

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    1. That was one thing about this book. Pat Conroy doesn't mince words about family members or himself. He's equally honest. And yes, accepting the reactions would have to be part of it, and maybe worth it to tell your story. Good points.

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  15. Those are the big questions. I have great admiration for people like Conroy, who have the courage to put the raw ugly truth (from their perspective) out into the world - at the risk of personal relationships. It's worth the risk. The world benefits greatly from these works.

    I grapple with these questions, as I'm working on my memoir-esque novel. I'm paving the way with certain people, checking in with them and letting them know that they're mentioned, or that they've influenced certain characters. Ultimately, their feelings don't affect my final product, because the only family member I'm portraying negatively won't be reading it. I keep in mind the ultimate goal of creating a good, complete story.

    Be well, Julie.
    xoRobyn

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    1. Robyn, I really appreciate your feedback and comments since you are right in the muck of all this. Sounds like you are hitting all the elements to consider perfectly. Thanks for your feedback.

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  16. Great question. For me, since it's all about the fiction, I try to keep all parts of 'me' out of a book. But my personality always finds a way to sneak through. It's that voice thing. For you non-fic folks, you poor people you, the line is likely pretty thin. It's all about sharing a part of you. I'd be interested in hearing your answer in a couple of years. See if as you dive deeper on your journey whether that becomes a help or a hindrance. I suspect you will balance very well.

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    1. Julie, I'll be interested in seeing this too. Hopefully accompanied by huge royalties. ;) Seriously though, I not sure I have a "tell all" in me. Not sure that's my writing goals. But sure puts people in my life on fair warning-- better be nice to me... or else!

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  17. Julie,

    What a great question. For me I would answer yes and no. There are some things that must be said for a writer to maintain the honest flow of communication. But I sanitize my words to remove the intense harshness of the truth. Or at least the truth as I see it.

    Sometimes the truth must be told and feelings must be hurt I guess. On my blog I have not held back when telling a story about myself. But when it comes to someone else, I take great care to present them in a honest but fair light. If something unkind must be said, I feel an obligation to either remove their name or say something in their defense to balance out the negative.

    It is only fair to everyone involved. I am sure that truly wicked people like Stalin and Hitler had some redeeming qualities. Mr. Conroy's father was not evil like those men. He was a Marine Corp Fighter Pilot, he wasn't soft and fuzzy but he wasn't evil. I saw the movie, never read either book.

    I have been an angry person in my past. But what lengths would I go to unleash that anger? I don't know, but to me it isn't worth tearing apart a family. In my writing, I have passages where the anger burns through but I had a debt of obligation to the men and women I served with to tell the real truth. Sometimes my anger and hate cloud the truth and they deserve to have their story told honestly. Before I press the submit button, I always go back and read it. Most of the time, I edit out the truly hurtful passages or at least make them more pleasant.

    By the way, I have some great stories that I cannot tell because the other people involved have asked me not to tell. Unfortunately as a writer, I also have to respect their desire to keep those stories within the family.

    Great discussion question.

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    1. Rob, I've actually thought of you as I've read comments here and was hoping you'd stop by and leave your two cents (although, this was worth at least a dime). I know much of your fiction and in your blog, nonfiction, is based on experiences and feelings you've had. It's what makes your writing ring with authenticity and gives it its "grit". I don't think you could write the kind of stuff you do without infusing it with the emotional piece.

      Yes, in this book, Conroy actually does a very good job showing the peace and even respect he had for and with his father by the end of his life. He was, if the accounts are accurate, mean, and it left its mark on his kids. But he was unwavering in his patriotism and beliefs.

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  18. This is one of the reasons I struggle with essays. It's hard to be so open and personal without the veil of fiction. Then there is the matter of the other people in our lives who are part of the story, and how they will feel about being exposed against their will. Yet, this kind of authenticity makes for the best writing.

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    1. I am getting better leaving myself open, although still always cringe after I hit the publish button. Writing, fiction or nonfiction, is a very vulnerable experience, I agree. It does make the writing more authentic and I think is what helps readers connect with their hearts and emotions. Bringing people into it is a whole other can o' worms.

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  19. That is a tough question. And no one will agree on the answer! I think it's up to the writer to come to an agreement with the subject (or still living people who might also be affected) The big reason people read memoirs was that the person's life was fascinating, unreal, original, or scary to imagine, and those are also good reasons to write one...

    happy thursday

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    1. I think so too, Tara. I think we have to write with honesty and edit with our readers and family in mind. Good response. Thank you.

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  20. I don't know the answer to that, but I think you inadvertently wrote a book review because I feel I need to read this book.

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    1. It was a really good book. His writing is amazing. Truly. I'd give it a 4-5 star rating. Enjoy it if you do.

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  21. And that's why I write fiction. I try to stick to overall truths and universal themes. Sometimes it gets personal, but it's from a character, not me.

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    1. Fiction is a beautiful way to see truth without being bashed over the head with it. Barbara Kingsolver is a master at this (although sometimes you get a wee bit bashed as a reader).

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  22. This was a continual topic of discussion and debate in my nonfiction writing class in college. Some people thought as Conroy does: no holds barred and emotions be darned. Some of us thought that a bit of delicacy should be used when handling sensitive emotional issues, especially when writing about recognizable people. Personally, it depends on the author. If you can take the criticism and emotional outbursts that will come from being brutally honest, then go for it. If you're more sensitive, you might want to make you characters less recognizable.

    I read Pat Conroy's book "memoir", My Reading Life, last year. It was the first time I was introduced to his beautiful writing! I'm sure I'll read more! Great post!

    Jen

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    1. I think Jen, you hit on something very good-- yes, if you can live with the repercussions, go for it. If you're too sensitive, don't wade into it.

      My Reading Life is the only other book I've ever read of his. I loved, LOVED that book. I had a crush on him after that book. I have yet to dig into his fiction.

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  23. Julie, I think of how I would feel if someone aired all my dirty laundry in a tell-all book against my will or without my knowledge. It would hugely upset me to suddenly have my life put on blast. Therapeutic release for the writer is not worth the pain and backlash it can cause for your friends and family. I prefer to uplift instead of tear down. That's one reason I prefer fiction writing. You can still have therapeutic release as a writer under the guise of fictional characters withouting exposing friends and family's dirty laundry. I just think we need to be more compassionate of others in our lives. Just because we choose to be writers doesn't mean they choose to be exposed in our books.

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    1. Well not all nonfiction or memoirs even have to be bashing tell-alls. One of my favorite, "A Year On The Beach" (Joan Anderson) is a thoughtful memoir about a woman's journey through a difficult period in her marriage and life as she tries to rediscover herself. She manages to be honest about her situation without bashing her husband-- and gives the reader a beautiful take-away in the process. Well done.

      You bring up a point no one has really touched on and one that occurred to me too-- wow the devastation it must have on people mentioned in the book! In this one, in particular, Conroy lets loose about his sister. It's cringe-worthy sometimes. And I wonder what kind of pain this caused her in the aftermath. Harsh, even if dead on true.

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  24. This is a sticky topic, and you bring up some valid points here, Julie. I think it's the responsibility of each writer to determine what they want to get out of their memoir writing experience, who should see their finished work, and where this might take them.

    Once I read a memoir written by a woman who was explaining something really awful and damaging that had happened to her as a child. I waited for the writer to express her rage and openly grieve because she had every reason to do so. But she didn't go there. She merely explained what had happened, and touched upon how this incident affected her and how others treated her while she was growing up. Her tone was surprisingly calm, which led me to think that A. she might be suppressing some of her feelings or B. she had overcome that horrible incident from her childhood. After reading her book where she details her rise to success, I decided that my vote was with B.

    So even if people have experienced something traumatic or difficult in their life, the tone that they share their story with doesn't always have to necessarily be a negative one.....but....sometimes it could be, and even should be, depending on the story.

    Again, a sticky topic. Thanks for pushing me to think about this one, Julie!

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    1. A very thoughtful response. I think you bring up a good point which echoes a lot of thoughts expressed: it depends on the writer and ultimately, what they can live with after the book is published and what is needed to move the story forward effectively, I imagine. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  25. I believe an author has the right to tell their story however he/she chooses, but for a memoir, that brutal truth will most likely come at a cost. I don't want to feel any more alienated than I already do. Haha. I'll stick to fiction where I can sprinkle some of my dirty laundry anonymously. It's still therapeutic.

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  26. I remember seeing The Great Santini with Robert Duvall. It was a very powerful movie. You've raised some important questions. In The Book That I'll Never Write, I finally got my mom to agree on the actress who will play her in The Movie That Will Never Be Made. Fortunately, she doesn't mind being the center of many of my silly blog posts.

    Julie

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Thanks for being a part of the conversation. I love reading your thoughts and feedback.