A client reported to me that a professional in the industry had made this observation after reading the book proposal for this client’s memoir: “You can’t edit your life.” I told her, “I disagree. Don’t we all do this every day?” Did you tell your spouse about that parking ticket you received, or did you just pay it? Did you reveal to your child that you, too, hated practicing the violin, or did you “edit out” that bit of information?
Reality TV shows are popular because they don’t depict reality in its raw, unedited form. That would be boring. Instead, they depict a very carefully directed and edited reality. The template for their narrative is very predictable. A memoir, too, has a carefully constructed narrative. It takes the reader on a journey through a story about the writer’s life. There are many ways to tell any story, and many stories you can tell. At your next family gathering, bring up an incident from twenty or thirty years ago and watch how everyone argues about the storytelling!
We unconsciously edit our lives, too. Our memory plastic and selective because our brains are wired that way. We recall the stories and details that support the narrative we’ve unconsciously chosen for ourselves. Think back to your earliest childhood memory. What is the theme of this snippet of your life? Now ask yourself, does that theme play out in my life? My first recollection is of being a toddler, watching my older brother take pots and pans out of a kitchen cupboard and bang them together, then seeing my mother rush in to quiet him. In my professional life, I loved to be a ghostwriter and developmental editor, which requires stepping back to make keen observations about others. Is it any wonder that I recall this particular moment of being the observer?
A memoirist faces the challenge of finding and weaving together stories that form a cohesive narrative with one key theme and several sub-themes. If she adds in every incident that she recalls, she’ll end up with an autobiography with an exhaustive amount of detail that may fascinate her offspring or her best friend, but which has limited appeal to anyone who doesn’t know her. Her challenge is to know what story she wants to tell and consciously select the memories that support it. Then, her challenge is to write about these incidents in such a way that they resonate for the reader. An ordinary story about the first day at kindergarten, or the first time she ate an oyster, can have tremendous depth and emotional charge, even if on the surface such incidents seem mundane.
So yes, you can edit your life. You can edit the stories of family members, ex-lovers, and friends, and even leave them out of your tale if you like. No, you can’t make up details, and you absolutely should question your motives in writing about other people in your life; are you getting back at someone, or writing about this person in order to make sense of it all? It’s okay if you’re writing a memoir to work through your feelings. Just be sure that when you get to the step of seeking publication, you reflect on whether this is the story you want to tell others—and why you wish to do so.
Making decisions about what to reveal can be very difficult, but the process of making these choices can be extremely empowering. To tell your story your way, and yet find the universal elements that will cause a complete stranger to find your memoir compelling, takes courage, craft, and commitment. It also takes editing your life