As a fiction writer, I steal people, their gestures, patterns of speech, their history and stories. Then I dress it up and change it around in any way that suits me and my story. Usually it’s only the folks who recognise a small part of themselves who have any idea that I’m a thief.
As a memoirist I don’t fictionalise people or borrow bits of them, or disguise them. Rather than take a little bit and change it, the idea is that I take all of it and lay it bare. There’s no hiding and no where to hide. Rather than the petty theft of fiction, of small generally unidentifiable gestures, mannerisms and bits of stories, in memoir I’m moving into the Grand Larceny of stealing people and their lives whole. Working on a memoir has me feeling as if I’m moving from a small bit of shoplifting, to The Great Train Robbery.
I talked about it with my Dad. He’s an historian and does a lot of family history work. He tells me that when he researched our extended family, he found all sorts of skeletons in many cupboards. Some were surprising, he said, and others explained things that had never quite made sense in the stories that are passed around and passed down in large extended families and which make up the family’s oral history. So that time in the 1920s that Uncle Whatsit vanished for a while actually wasn’t a sudden business trip, but according to the court records a rather nasty divorce case in which he was the other man. And we can’t be sure how it was that Great Great Aunt Someone-or-other raised three kids in the 1890s after her husband died and quite where she got the money from but it looks like….. well you know what I mean. And that’s just our family. He tells me that when he’s researched family history for other folks, he’s found all sorts of things that no-one knew about. According to Dad if you go back two or three generations or more most of us have got something hanging from the family tree that has been conveniently forgotten, fictionalised, or changed to make it more acceptable.
Anyway, I thought that he’d be worth a chat. I wanted to know how he made decisions about what to put in and what to leave out. Truth be told – I was hoping for a magic formula, or wand that would help me in the Grand Larceny that writing a memoir entails. His solution wasn’t as helpful as I’d hoped. He told me that when he found something that may cause distress, be controversial or embarrassing, he consulted the family. If they wanted it published – then he published it. If they would rather it remained secret – or at least not published – then he handed what records he had over to them and didn’t publish that particular part of the history.
I tried translating this into something that would be helpful to me as memoirist. Certainly it’s possible to combine some people, or change some names or physical descriptions, or to leave some people out altogether. But there are some things and some people that won’t work for. I can’t write about my life as an adopted child and then adult without writing about my parents – all four of them. If I change them then it’s no longer a memoir, it’s fiction. I tried to back away from my Grand Larceny and go back into petty theft, and thought “I’ll just write a novel. I’ll write a story about an adopted child, then adult and her four parents and make it all up”. It didn’t work. My four parents kept emerging into my fiction. This was going to be a memoir, whether I wanted it or not.
Back I went to Dad. I’d already asked him how he managed potentially tricky disclosures, but in looking for the easy way out I hadn’t asked him why he managed it in the way that he does.
It’s compassion he said and it all fell into place for me. Compassion for the awful predicament that Great Great Aunt Someone-or-other found herself in as a mother raising children alone in the 1890s, and compassion for her descendants who weren’t concerned for themselves; they just didn’t want anyone to think badly of Great Great Aunt Someone-or-other, who did the best she could with what she had. And while Uncle Whatsit had always been a bit of a rogue, compassion for his wife and surviving children – now family elders – who didn’t want to revisit his choices and behaviour that had made their family life so harsh and difficult while they were growing up. They had been pleased to leave it behind and saw no point in going back there.
Memoirs are, by their very nature, acts of Grand Larceny, but I’ve decided I’m going to try for compassionate theft. If I can bring compassion to the telling of the story and of the actions and decisions that my four parents made, perhaps then my memoir will be an act of Grand Compassionate Larceny.