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5 Tips for Incorporating Sensitive Family Material Into a Memoir

Wading into the murky waters of the past to write a memoir is only half the battle. Here, author Elisa Bernick shares 5 tips for incorporating sensitive family material into a memoir.

Like many memoirists, my childhood provides a treasure trove of familial strife to work with. What with a physically and verbally abusive mother, antisemitic neighbors (so much for Minnesota “nice”), my mom’s depression and serial infidelity, my dad’s undiagnosed PTSD, a messy public divorce … so much material!

The question I pondered was: How could I excavate this rich vein without blowing up myself and my family in the process? How could I tell stories that resonate with the emotional truth of my journey without further shaming or traumatizing myself or others?

(How You Know When the Time Is Right To Write a Memoir)

As memoirists, we are all airing our family’s dirty laundry to some degree. There are many famous quotes from writers about mining their family secrets. I’m partial to this one by George Bernard Shaw, “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”

To be frank, I was less worried about exposing my family’s secrets than with opening doors to the past that I’d purposely kept locked. I was breathing life into dangerous secrets, but the skeletons I was making dance were my own.

Because of that, I did what many memoirists do; I first wrote a novel that was a thinly disguised version of my family, which enabled me to keep a distance from the most difficult (and interesting) parts of my story. Predictably, it didn’t result in a marketable project, but it did win me a chance to work with a respected writer as part of AWP’s Writer-to-Writer program. My mentor saw value in the material, but after 100 pages she said, “If there isn’t a murder, a drug overdose, or a suicide in the next 25 pages, this isn’t a novel, it’s a memoir.”

I put up a fight, but I knew she was right. Eventually, I rewrote the novel as a memoir called Departure Stories: Betty Crocker Made Matzoh Balls (and other lies). After a few false starts, I found my path to creating a book that authentically gets at the hard stuff without creating irrevocable rifts among my family members or making me revisit the worst parts of my psyche.

How? Here are five tips for how to do it.

5 Tips for Incorporating Sensitive Family Material Into a Memoir

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Tell the truth whenever possible, and acknowledge what you’re not sure about.

Truth is a big deal, of course. But memory, it turns out, is pretty flexible. When a fictional event I’d included in my novel, something I truly believed I’d made up, turned out to be completely true, it called into question everything I knew about memory. This led me to some fascinating research.

While we rely on our memories to establish the facts of our lives and identities, science has soundly disproven their “factual” nature. We don’t store memories in orderly files and call them up as static snapshots of moments in time.

Instead, selectivity, trauma, and time alter the way we remember significant events. Memory and imagination fuse together. If you acknowledge this reality with your readers and be honest about the gray areas, you can tap into your emotional truth and make your story even more resonant without having to relate things “word for word.”

Incorporate humor.

I’m Jewish, so of course I included Jewish jokes in my memoir. Sometimes the best way to excavate pain is to do it with a laugh.

Here’s a joke from my book: In a small village in Poland, a terrifying rumor is spreading: A Christian girl has been found murdered. Fearing retaliation, the Jewish community gathers in the shul to plan whatever defensive actions are possible under the circumstances. Just as the emergency meeting is being called to order, in runs the president of the synagogue, out of breath and all excited. “Brothers,” he cries out. “I have wonderful news! The murdered girl is Jewish!”

Ha-ha. See what I mean?

5 Tips for Incorporating Sensitive Family Material Into a Memoir

Let your curiosity drive the process.

I’m a journalist, and stepping back from the tortured family stuff allowed me to research some “side” issues that turned out to be significant. For example, I knew my mom competed in the 1964 Mrs. Minnesota contest, and I wondered how many other Jewish women had done so.

I couldn’t find much about it online or in the state archives, but a chance conversation with my sister unearthed a scrapbook my mom kept during that period. It was filled with newspaper articles from that earlier era, and it changed my approach to the book. It gave me a different sense of my mom and shed light on how the time and place she was living in affected her choices.

Broaden the context of your investigation.

Being willing to humanize rather than demonize my mother allowed me to find the depth and complexity of her story, which made for a far more interesting, entertaining, and truthful book.

As I examined the nature of memory and trauma, the way that stories create meaning in our lives, and the malleable nature of the “facts” of the past, I realized that we are all capable of finding new truths inside old stories. This became the key to a new understanding of my mother’s departure stories and my own.

Wait until people are dead.

OK, I’m kidding about this. Sort of. My mom’s second husband was a nasty guy, and for much of her life, my mom wasn’t very nice either. To avoid sticky legal issues and to avoid making my mom feel terrible, I waited until they were both dead to publish my memoir. This allowed me to dig deeper with fewer constraints.

Not everyone in my family is excited that I’ve written a memoir, and it certainly dredged up some uncomfortable moments. But it also allowed me to discover that those skeletons I had locked away turn out to be pretty good dancers.

Writing the Personal Essay 101: Fundamentals

This course guides beginning and intermediate writers through elements of how to write a personal essay, helping them identify values expressed in their stories and bring readers into the experiences described. Writers learn how to avoid the dreaded responses of “so what?" and “I guess you had to be there" by utilizing sensory details, learning to trust their writing intuitions, and developing a skilled internal editor to help with revision.

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