It came as a surprise to me years ago to learn that NOT saying something could be considered lying, at least according to my stepmother, whose opinions on things like that mattered when I was in high school. “But I never said I [fill in the blank]!” I’d protest, when she confronted me about something that could result in my being grounded for the weekend. “That’s right!” she’d say. “You’re lying by omission.” It was a done deal. I was grounded.
Older now and pretty well traveled around the block, I have to defer to the wisdom one of my favorite writers, Russell Baker. “As memoirists,” he wrote, “we are the editor of own life.”
And we’re well practiced. In storytelling, which we do every day (“This morning I saw…” “Last Saturday I went to…”), we unconsciously choose what to put in and what to leave out. And when we write from life, we do the same. We include what’s needed for the shape of the story. Where does it need to be begin? We dramatize situations by creating scenes, with descriptive, usually sensory details that help listeners feel they are there, in the present time of the story. If we go off on a tangent with related but nonessential information we can lose a listener the same way we can lose a reader by including more than the story needs.
When we’re writing, we’re not lying by leaving out certain parts of a story; we’re making conscious, artful choices. Don’t tell my stepmother I’ve gotten really good at it (!).
So what do you do with this question of lying by omission or wisely and artfully choosing what to leave out for the strength of the story, among other reasons. Are you lying when you don’t tell the whole truth? Is it expected of you as a memoirist?
What to put in and what to leave out has so many facets I’ve decided to tackle it in small bites and give attention to each one. I’ll look at the tough subject of writing about a living relative, the question of including details of sexual encounters that were especially significant to you, sharing family secrets, revealing truths about yourself for the first time.
If there are other subjects related to writing the truth you’d like to bring up, contact me with the question and I’ll be glad to reply or explore it in detail in another blog post.
The bottom line for all truth telling in memoir:
1) Never write with the intention to cause harm (e.g., to get back at someone or shock someone).
2) Consider journaling to flush out and free fiery emotion that deserves a voice but may skew your story or reveal something you’d rather omit. Write it as a piece of memoir once you have more clarity. Include emotions, but don’t use the memoir to vent.
3) Don’t shock with big news about you or a member of the family. If you can, have a conversation with the person or people who could be negatively affected by new information instead of handing them a paper or a book you wrote and letting the story say it for you. The conversation can be a side benefit of writing memoir.
4) Interview yourself when you hit those hard spots instead of relying on your pat response: “I don’t tell that story.” Pause for a few moments while you’re writing. Take a walk or another kind of solitary break and consider the angles. Ask yourself questions like What could the benefit in writing this be? Could anyone be hurt by it? Do I need to protect them from knowing my truth? Is that more important right now than my writing this story/telling my truth? Can I tell the true story without laying out all the painful details; can I summarize, be more general and still be fair to myself and my story?
Come back for more on truth telling every week in February. And for a peek at what’s going on with my new new book about girlhood through a century (“100 Years in the Life of An American Girl: True Stories 1910 – 2010”) visit the Facebook page @ facebook.com/100yearsinthelife. Girls and women from around the country share fascinating tales of life before age 13.