Do No Harm: To Publish or Not to Publish. Guest Post by Amy McElroy
As a young girl, my loneliness drew me deep into books in search of connections with others. Yet no one really seemed to write about my kind of life—a world I had no words for at the time, other than “home.” The size of our two-story house on eleven acres around me paled in comparison to the distance of my workaholic father who spent just as much energy suppressing the emotions inside himself and those around him with an illusory ire. And my depressed, co-dependent mother catered to his demands and craved space to cope with her own issues.
I always knew I wanted to contribute to the well of words so that someone else might not feel as lonely because of what I’d written. But after abandoning memoir numerous times for its bottomless vulnerability, I finally returned to it as a vehicle in my quest for truth. Yet the only way I can be genuine in my writing is to include how I struggle with the stories of my childhood, those early emotions.
Many of us probably have stories sitting in drawers waiting for family members to make a graceful exit from the planet before we blow the dust off the front covers. But asking memoir writers to put off our careers for, potentially, decades requires too high a price. We are separate people with the right to live our own lives as we choose. Likewise, our families can choose to be impacted by that as they wish. And yet, if things were this simple, we wouldn’t have such cluttered drawers full of stories.
An inner search reveals no hidden motives of revenge behind my desire to shed light on the darker parts of my family history. And even if such a twisted motive eluded me, an even more twisted safety mechanism keeps me in check: I cannot shake the child voice inside of me—illogical as it sounds—that I am responsible for, in particular, my father’s feelings, no matter that he now lives halfway across the world. So the guilt that shadows me as I prepare to publish these stories haunting me from my childhood keeps any concerns of revenge safely at bay.
The many, many refrains of, “Don’t upset your father,” would echo like a record player stuck in a groove. I waited with bird-wings flapping in my chest, wondering whether to ask him something when he finally came inside with his sun-soaked Hanes t-shirt, or clomped down the attic stairs after laying insulation in one hundred-ten degree heat, muttering his refusal to plug in a fan. My mother’s warnings sunk deep into my psyche in a way I can never seem to dig out.
Recently, I saw a play called Sheldon and Mrs. Levine, about an overbearing mother who still ran her adult son’s life as he traveled far across the globe seeking independence. Finally, when the son gathered his courage to stop returning her letters, my own epiphany occurred when both son and–more significantly to me–the mother’s life went on. Despite worrying and missing him, the world did not, in fact, crack open; instead the mother formed new relationships and found hobbies. In fact, SPOILER ALERT: they even reached a reconciliation of sorts.
We are not responsible for our families’ feelings.
Yet, while I value truth telling, like a doctor I also seek to do no harm. Giving my father warning about what is about to become public seems the fair thing to do. Not so he can talk me out of publishing it, or so I can change it, but so I can say “Here it is. This is my truth.” Does that process tempt me to water down the writing? Certainly. And I don’t want this to be a back-door nod for his approval.
But I also don’t want to cause him any shock or undue pain—to see or imagine the shattering of his blue-grey irises, nor the cracking of the crystal-blue ball he has created before him. To be fair, it’s an illusion the rest of our family has conspired to keep intact until now.
I know my truth is not his truth, nor my mother’s. It never will be. I’m not trying to convince him. The intent to love—or love as he perceives or lives it—does not overcome all obstacles or absolve all consequences.
And I know that I may not always have all of the historical details correct. Memoir is perception. But memories as they stand shape who we are.
I’m not writing for my family. The question arises then, who are we writing for? Ourselves or our readers? To gain clarity, to find understanding or forgiveness inside ourselves?
Perhaps I’m trying to find my way past this glass house of my father’s morality and list of achievements to conquer before I am worthy. Or to be seen by the world as something worthy. To have done something well that is truly and honestly me, baring my soul to the world—the opposite of putting on airs to impress someone or achieving some goal with some artificial set of criteria.
I need to be seen for my truth without fear of upsetting anyone. I need to be seen for myself. And I can’t write about myself, who I am, without this childhood piece of me—God knows I’ve tried.
And I still harbor a secret hope to become part of the vast pool in the world of words where lost souls seek a connection to another person or even an idea that keeps them from floating off into space alone. For me, writers of fantasy and science fiction opened those doors like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, by Julie Andrews, expanded my ideas of love and universe at times in my childhood when I saw no other safe hands extended. I don’t practice medicine or even represent children in the foster care system anymore. I write. That’s the way I hope to reach people. Maybe someone out there will recognize herself in my story and take comfort in that reflection.
Amy McElroy is a writer, freelance editor, writing coach, and yoga instructor. Previously, she coached writers in the Writing Center and in the classroom at Gavilan College. In another lifetime, she also worked as an attorney.
She has a new column, At the Root of Things, appearing at the popular blog,Sweatpants and Coffee.
Amy’s other blog, My Big Truth, lives at her second cyber-home at a writers’ collective for indie authors, indie-visible.com.
Amy is currently working on two books, Yoga for Writers, and a book of personal essays with a tree theme.