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How Much Should I Say? Choosing What to Include in a Memoir About a Sensitive Topic

Choosing what to include in a memoir can be challenging—and doubly so when the topic of the memoir is particularly sensitive. Susan Burrowes, who wrote a book about her family's struggle with her teen daughter's addiction, discusses her process and decisions.

Choosing what to include in a memoir can be challenging—and doubly so when the topic of the memoir is particularly sensitive. Susan Burrowes, who wrote a book about her family's struggle with her teen daughter's addiction, discusses her process and decisions.

After the third early reader told me how brave I was to write a book about our family’s struggle with our addicted teen daughter, I started worrying that I had said too much in Off the Rails. How brave, exactly, was I?

So I picked up the book and re-read it.

It reads differently, now that it’s in book form. The eye-catching cover, a preface and afterword frame our pain and triumphs. The neat chapter breaks designate the messy stages of caring for an out-of-control teen, and the carefully proofed sections detail our desperate steps to find help. Gone are the dog-eared, typed manuscript pages I lived with for so long, marked for typos, editing notes, doodles and reminders. Instead, the pages are uniform, well-ordered, nothing at all like the journey they represent. A book is different than the bits and pieces that you experience when you write and rewrite—the “all of it” can be overwhelming, and that was unexpected.

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It’s rough, even now, to read it. Other writers tell me a sense of detachment will come eventually, that it will feel like someone else in the story, but I’m not there yet. I still feel the confusion and pain of slowly losing my daughter to drugs, the horror of looking down at her in a hospital bed, her IV a tenuous lifeline. When I read the book, I can still hear her taunts and screams, the doors slamming on our relationship. I experience the sense of failure and loss over and over again. The book tethers me to the events, detachment eludes me. That’s not a bad thing, I decided. It helps me to remember that there was a reason for writing the book, and my hopes that my mistakes could help others in similar circumstances. It prepares me to speak about our family’s experience to others in a way that is authentic, and true to my feelings.

I brace myself for judgement from readers who don’t know me. You were too soft, too hard, too distant, too involved, they’ll say. It’s the parent’s fault, the school’s fault, the therapist’s fault, society’s fault. You should have grounded her, taught her to be independent, kicked her out, given her more love, acted sooner, held off for a while. Add my scathing self-judgement, and it’s easy to worry that I’m not equal to the task. But these difficult events have taught me something that all writers would do well to remember. There’s more than one truth, and that fact builds disagreement into the process of writing, and reading, and of course, reviewing. As long as the discussion is respectful we should be okay with it, even welcome it. It is a privilege to initiate discourse.

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Sticking with the project was hard, even with my daughter’s sobriety, even with her permission. I gave up a few times. But then a distressed parent would call, or I would see a drug-addled teen on the streets downtown. What if, I thought to myself, there is one person who can read this and be helped? Maybe someone will do a better job parenting because of my mistakes. Or know when it’s time to look for help. Maybe they will know more about what it’s like, that the treatments we tried were hard, a last resort when all other options failed. Then I would sit down to the keyboard again, to set down our story. I decided to write for one person, a fictional being who lived in the corner of my mind that needed to peek inside a treatment center, or learn about drug interactions, or have hope that their family could maybe be whole again.

Now, I read the words that reveal our family’s blemishes, and the workings of programs that were meant to do what we parents could not. I listen to my daughter’s shifting memories of her experience in treatment and her questions about the effectiveness of her work there, and I wonder if the story will ever really be complete. But all of our lives are multiple stories, sequels of sequels, and as long as we are alive the story continues.

Ultimately, I know that the story isn’t being written by me at all. I don’t get to choose the story, or how it ends. No memoirist does.

Today is an anniversary. Another Sobriety Day has come. Another year has passed, and my daughter remains strong and sober. I pick up my phone to congratulate her, to send her my love and encouragement for the hard path she will be on for the rest of her life. But she’s beaten me to it. There on the screen: “Thank you for helping me stay alive. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without you guys.” And then I remember that I’m not the brave one at all. It’s been her all along.

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Susan Burrowes is a presenter, teacher, trainer, and project manager. She holds a master’s degree in communication but took enough time out of her studies to produce the two extraordinary, challenging children who continue to define her life. Her career spans fifteen years in advertising, eight years teaching in the college classroom, and another ten years training professionals in organizations how to communicate with each other, an irony that was not lost on her as she struggled to reach her addicted daughter. Burrowes currently works with a team of high-achieving young adults in Admissions at the University of California Santa Cruz, where she ponders the question of teen success on a daily basis. She writes about the strength and determination of troubled teens and special needs children. Facebook: @SusanBurrowesAuthor

Her memoir, Off the Rails: One Family’s Journey Through Teen Addiction published on August 21, 2018 by She Writes Press.

Online Course: Writing the Memoir 101

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Share memorable stories and experiences through writing. While writing a book-length personal story can be one of the most rewarding writing endeavors you will ever undertake, it's important to know not only how to write about your personal experiences, but also how to translate and structure them into an unforgettable memoir. The goal of this course is to teach you how to structure your stories, develop your storytelling skills, and give you the tips, techniques, and knowledge to adapt your own life stories into a chronological memoir. Learn more and register.

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