where the writers are
Memoir and Difficult/Tricky People

I am working with an author as a ghostwriter on a memoir about his son who managed to survive horrific injuries as the result of a motorcycle accident. One of the things we are writing about and we just had a long discussion of is a topic we are calling People Who Inspire and People Who Disappoint. As a cancer survivor and really just as a human being I have been very touched by how he wants to handle this section and the stories that he is telling.

During my own experiences, a year of treatment resulting in lasting medical issues and a lifelong collostomy, I learned very well the meaning of what it means to be inspired and disappointed by the actions of others. I saw other cancer patients who were far less lucky than I was and witnessed their courage, strength, sadness, pain and fortitude in dealing with this horrible disease. I was and have continued to be inspired by them and want to live a life that is worthy of my luck, the efforts to save me, and these people's friendship.

By contrast, there were those who severely disappointed. Namely my ex wife who made treatment and cancer far more difficult than it had to be; to the point where my oncologist assigned a social worker to help me deal with her and then in the depth of treatment I had to borrow a few thousand dollars from my brother and parents to defend myself in court from her. It was and continues to be very painful.

My author whose memoir I am writing had experiences of inspiration and difficulty that are in some ways analogous to my own. They are his stories though.

As we have worked through his memoir and I have worked on writing my own and telling my story, which includes both disappointment and inspiration of and in others, there are some very real issues that come up. The people who inspire may never fully understand the impact that they had on your own experience and how their strength gave you strength; how they were so very beautiful in their being. Those that disappoint probably also don't fully realize or care about the pain or difficulty they have caused.

This latter group also often exists in the world and watch to see if their actions are included in the story, which creates a significant issue for any writer to deal with. How to handle the actions of these people in ways that don't provoke them or cause them to lash out again. Do you play it safe and omit these stories? Do you soft peddle them so they don't have nearly the emotional resonance for the reader that they had for you? Or do you relate them honestly and openly?

As with most things I think there is no single answer for all instances. In my case I am open about it and hope that maybe through recognizing how I was affected there may be acknowledgement and hopefully the ability resolve and move on. For others, it may be some other solution.

But this is the tricky thing of memoir. How does a writer write about people who did negative things? I think of Mary Karr and how she wrote about her childhood with her mother and the pain and challenges of some of her mother's actions. She was open and honest and did so knowing she would have to look her mother in the eye. I also think that she wrote from a perspective of having already forgiven her mother and reached a sense of resolution with her, though maybe not.

As I think about it, the act of memoir is often the act of picking at a scab. It is a cut that won't heal and hurts, and the act of writing is an act of healing as much as it is a generous means to share and try to help others with your story. In my case, I want people to know that cancer is hard and that people who were hard before will likely still be hard, but you can do it, you can make it through with your honor, dignity, sense of self, and peace of mind in tact, though I do think the emotional healing may be a lifelong experience with challenges and rewards.

However, there are consequences and we as writers have to be aware of that.

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balanced view

James, I appreciated your view of people--those who are hurtful, those who can help. My husband was a child amputee. He experienced the meanness and also the edification from children and adults around him. Their motivation is not simple, obvious. You seem to say that in considering the memories--yours and your client's--you are dealing with.

May all go well.

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Thanks for the comment. If there is one true thing to be said about illness or physical incapacitation, you will quickly see the true nature of others. I was very impressed by how wonderful the vast majority of people are, but how destructive one person could be.