A recurring joke in my household right now: I do something dumb or thoughtless or gross, and one of my kids calls out, “I bet you won’t put that in your book!“ (In case you’re just joining us: the book is a memoir about fatherhood.)
My 15yo boy, Henry, first said this to me a few weeks ago when I did some silly thing or another. I can’t even remember what; he probably knows exactly what, but I am not inclined to jog his memory. Now his line is what I hear when I do any number of embarrassing things: farting while doing my nightly back stretches; making a meal that no one likes and getting grumpy about it; realizing, after several long moments, that one of my kids has been trying to get my attention while I’ve been focused on something else.
The other day I was sitting on the couch working on my book when I realized that 12yo Lou had been trying and failing to get my attention. She had a homework question, or maybe she had a story about school that day, or something else important to her in that moment. But I was focused on the sentence that I was crafting, and when I’m preoccupied my selective hearing is impenetrable. When Lou finally wrestled my attention onto her, she looked me in the eye and asked, “Wait, are you sitting there writing about being a dad?” And then, a beat later: “Are you writing about being a dad while ignoring your daughter?”
Then she and Henry joined together in near-chorus: “I bet you won’t put that in your book!”
In truth, there are all sorts of things I won’t put in my book. Memoirs are not total-access documentaries. They are stories, and stories are constructed, created things.
I have some experience with this process. When I was 27—a full two decades ago!—I wrote a memoir about my faith journey. It was called My Faith So Far: A Story of Conversion and Confusion. That book is a frank account of what it was like to become an evangelical Christian in the charismatic megachurch world of the mid-1990’s. When I wrote it, I thought I was being pretty raw, pretty transparent, especially about the pain of spiritual confusion and doubt.
But when it came out, a few people who know me well noted that I left out some major driving factors in my confusion: namely, my own father, plus a couple influential father figures who’d had a shaping influence on my life. Those people were right. I left some characters out of the story.
Well, I left them out of the published version. Earlier drafts contained lots more detail—at first, I wrote without thinking of how anyone would feel about what I was writing. But a lot of passages ended up on the cutting room floor. And there were two reasons for that.
First, Dad was alive, and so was Mom, and even if I could convince myself that I didn’t care about his feelings, I definitely cared about Mom’s feelings, and she was the one who had to live with the guy and face the consequences of his reactions to whatever I wrote. As for the father figures, honestly I never even considered naming them or detailing their stories in print—they still held sway over my psyche, and I didn’t yet have enough distance to see our relationships clearly.
But truly, the second reason mattered even more: I was writing a story, and again, a story is a created thing. A memoir is not a facsimile of reality. It’s spun yarn. You take the fibers of the real, and you use them to create something new. And while that something new should deliver truth, it also has to work on its own terms—it has to be interesting and coherent and pleasurable in some way.
Stories need characters, and even nonfiction characters are shaped by their creators. Characters are assigned purposes, given shape and color. Some characters loom large, others just get a key line or two, and still others are left out entirely if they don’t serve the purposes of the story. Even when you’re writing from memory, even when you’re working with artifacts—photographs, journal entries—you’re making all sorts of creative decisions.
The truth is that “what actually happened” is a shape-shifting category. It’s not entirely up for grabs, but it is contingent on the storyteller who is constantly (whether consciously or unconsciously) determining what the account of actuality includes and what it doesn’t.
In other words, Henry and Lou, you shouldn’t be asking whether I’m going to write about my farts. You should be asking whether I’m going to write about yours.