The release of The Power of Memoir–How to Write Your Healing Story has given me the opportunity to answer questions about memoir writing, from truth to secrets, from families who support the writer to families who threaten to sue if the memoirist tells “the truth.” I’m posting some of the questions every few days to help memoir writers caught in the dilemma between truth, memoir, family, and fiction.

Many writers are torn between the desire to tell the truth and the internal/external pressure to keep family secrets. What do you recommend they do?
It’s important first for the writer to get her story on the page, to write her own truth. Each person has a point of view and his own story that no one else can tell, so he needs to claim it and discover its wisdom by writing about it. This process creates a new perspective that brings forth layers of memories and insights. Exposing these layers is part of the healing process.

And there’s the hot topic in all my workshops: secrets. Secrets are energy magnets. The force it takes to keep secrets hidden is energy that could be used for growth and creativity. So often though, the shame and guilt associated with secrets keep feeding the darkness and the fear. Secrets maintain a great power over us, and we are diminished by them. We become co-conspirators to family dynamics that we don’t agree with and want to break away from. So we get caught in a conflict—to speak or not to speak? Do we remain closed and complicit, or open up and take the risk of losing friends and family, of being ousted from the family, or shamed once again into submission? These are choices that we need to make consciously and with care.

I tell my students to be open to writing two versions of the story: first, write for yourself, to clear out your emotional closet and sort the events that are jumbled up in your mind. Research has shown that writing the unadorned truth is powerful and creates changes in the brain—in other words: it’s healing.

When you put real people in your book, especially if they are identifiable, they should be notified. Even if all the portraits are positive, we’re exposing a real person to the eyes of the world. The convention is to have people read the sections they appear in, if you are on speaking terms. If not, change the names and identifying characteristics, even if that means changing names for the character, the streets, town and anything that exposes them. If published, the legal branch of the publishing company can vet the manuscript as well, but since so many memoirs are self-published, I think it’s important for people to keep these ethics in mind.

Putting the publishing concerns aside for a moment, I think the writer first needs to listen to the voice within, the true author of the story–yourself. Write what you have to say as if no one will read it–you can review it later. You will be different from the writer who began the story. Writing the story will transform you, heal you, and give you a feeling of empowerment.
Be brave–write your story!