Speakers: Lucas Mann, Mieke Eerkens, Honor Moore, Maggie Nelson and Hope Edelman
Lucas Mann, who wrote about his brother’s death from drug overdose (Lord Fear: a Memoir), read an essay that revealed an aspect of family memoir that then echoed through the presentations that followed. Writing family onto the page changes reality, changes relationships, becomes a kind of death itself. As Mann put it: “I don’t know if I remember my brother anymore. That’s a loss that I’ve only just begun to acknowledge. I think that the act of writing him, of making him, has become the memory.” In this way, writing about the truth subverts the truth itself.
Mieke Eerkens, the panel organizer, spent five years researching her family for a book and what she uncovered changed her perception of her parents. She could see her father’s workaholism as an extension of survival mechanisms he developed as a child in a men’s prison camp and this understanding let compassion replace a sense of personal neglect she had felt as a child. Eerkens also stressed the importance of fairness in exposing flaws, arguing that if she writes of her mother’s dumpster diving then she must equally expose her habit of recycling dental floss. “We must make ourselves vulnerable as well,” said Eerkens.
Clarifying the divide between the situation and the subject creates space to tell difficult family stories. “The situation is not the story,” said Honor Moore, author of The Bishop’s Daughter, a memoir that exposes truths about her father’s sexuality that she had no knowledge of while growing up. To get to the story, she gave herself the task of imagining her life without this secret, to consider how the truth might have influenced her own choices.
All this altering of family relations begs the question if these stories need to be written. Books by Maggie Nelson, particularly Jane: a Murder, cross into territory that she admits force “a reckoning that maybe nobody needed to have.” Nelson shared that her partner describes the effect of such scrutiny (for the writing of The Argonauts) as that of “an epileptic with a pacemaker being married to a strobe light artist.” So telling family stories carries with it great responsibility, sacrifice and impact.
The last speaker, Hope Edelman, offered five practical steps for navigating the murky waters of family memoir. 1. Don’t assume anything about what a family member will feel shame for. 2. Don’t assume anything about what a family member will object to. 3. Be clear about your intentions. “Revenge is a powerful motivator of human behavior, but a lousy reason to write a memoir,” writes Edelman in her takeaway flyer. 4. You have more power than you realize, so you can be thoughtful about what you include and what you leave out. 5.You have less power than you think, because your publisher’s legal department has some as well.
Collectively the panel offered thoughtful insights on the challenges specific to writing family memoir. What resonated the most for me was the revelation that writing about loved ones can obscure your memories and relationships. The writing itself becomes part of the reality between you and your family. This is part of the genres horror and allure.
Rebecca Fish Ewan teaches landscape architecture at Arizona State University, where she earned her MFA in creative writing. Author of A Land Between, her work has also appeared in Brevity, LA magazine, and Hip Mama. She has just completed a free verse cartoon memoir on childhood friendship cut short by murder.