The Days of My Life Did Not Fall Gently
My editor recently asked me to write a guest blog about the issues I faced--and mastered--in the process of writing The Queen of Everything: A Memoir. It didn't take long for me to admit that the single most troubling subject for me was telling the truth. Yep. Honesty. But I don't mean telling the truth vs. lying. Rather, sharing the hideous secrets of my backstory in all their unvarnished glory with, well, everyone.
Telling the truth, the whole truth and nothin' but the truth, rested heavily on my shoulders for the majority of time I spent writing this book. Could I be truthful about my experiences with my readers? But a more difficult question was: could I be honest with myself? That was a hard one. After all, it was I who created the life I lived; it wasn't forced on me from outside influences.
And that question led me to yet another problem: Fear. If I told the truth, did I fear what other people would think of me, or what I myself would think of me once I saw my words on paper?
Many conversations about the truth with well-meaning friends and colleagues often included the same questions:
"You're a good writer with some provocative experiences. But why in the devil would you want people to know about them?"
"And your children and grandchildren, what will they think when they read those ugly secrets about you?"
"What purpose could be served by airing your dirty laundry in public?"
"Why would you want to write such unflattering things about yourself and share them with the world?"
Was I doing it for attention? Notoriety? To explain and defend my behavior during the worst of my
days? Or because I thought my experiences were unique?
"It's your story and it should stay locked inside of you," a member of my writing group commanded, "so it doesn't upset or embarrass anyone you know."
The comments of another group member went something like this: "Why should she care about hanging out her dirty laundry? Especially if it's a good story. Books about perfect humans don't sell. And they're boring. There may be some people in her life who would disappear or change their opinion about her. But, after all, it's who she is today that truly matters, isn't it? The true test of family and friendship will be in whether the people who read her memoir can accept the person who's emerged from her past experiences. Sonya has a compelling story, with a timely and gripping subject. If she's decided to write a memoir about that part of her life, then she has to be true to herself and honest with her readers. If people decide they no longer want her around after they know the truth, perhaps they weren't worth having in the first place."
Another group member spoke up then. "With all due respect to those members who believe that she shouldn't tell the whole truth: If the people closest to her don't know her story by now, then perhaps they should. They're all well into adulthood, including her children. Maybe it's time for them to take the blinders off. And, if they don't want to take the blinders off, then this book isn't going to change anything, is it?"
In the early days of my writing, I shrouded my experiences in flamboyant words and elegant turns of phrases. I wanted to distance myself from the reality and pain of my experiences as if they belonged to someone else. Her. Over there. And make her experiences more palatable than they actually were. But more palatable for whom?
I found that it wasn't my audience who demanded my life experiences be cloaked in a tidy package with sparkly paper and a lovely bow. It was I who wanted my writing to be easy to digest. For me. Coming face to face with all that, oh, suffering, was just too hard.
I realized that what I feared most about telling the truth was not what other people thought of the old me or my experiences, but what they thought of me now. And what I thought of me. After all that fetid water has passed under the bridge. Who I am, not who I was.
I was determined to stop dancing pretty circles around the dark days of my life and own who I was and how I'd lived. As much as I wanted to pretend that the days of my life fell gently, they didn't. They landed with an atomic explosion. I didn't want to see those words in print. But in order to write an authentic memoir, I had to stop obsessing over what other people might think about the woman who was a drunk, a piss-poor parent and a jailbird.
And what I've discovered is that coming face-to-face with yourself is actually much less exhausting than running away. Rather than tying me up in knots, writing has enabled me to unravel the mysteries of my life and understand the turmoil. But, most of all, writing has helped me heal.
In fact, the act of placing honest words on paper has been more liberating than anything else I've ever done in my life. Happy or not, pleasant and unpleasant, my experiences and memories are part of who I am.
Telling the truth about myself for the world to read has set me free. I no longer have to pretend that I had a different life. It's my life and my story and I'm okay with the way it's unfolded.