I’m spending some time answering memoir writing questions this month. So here is a popular topic: Truth and Secrets.

When a writer is torn between the desire to tell her story truth and the internal/external pressure to keep family secrets, what do you recommend?

It’s important first for the writer to get the story on the page, to write his or her own truth. Each person has a point of view and a story that no one else can tell, so the writer needs to claim it and try to 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 here’s the hot topic in all my memoir 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 and transformational on many levels.

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.

That said, when writing your early drafts, just write out all you have to say and don’t show it to anyone or tell anyone in the family that you are writing a memoir. That preserves your private writing space, and allows you to get out the stories that you need to release from your body. This helps you to develop a perspective on your memories, feelings, and family history that serves you well when you begin to make publishing decisions.