Writing About Loved Ones:
Telling the Truth without Losing Your Place at the Holiday Table
By WLT Intern, Lily Angelle
We’re in the thick of the holiday season, so it seems appropriate that our last Third Thursday of the year dealt with memoir writing, and the personal and familial struggles that come with telling the truth publicly.
Our panelists were: Robert Rummel Hudson, author of Schuyler’s Monster: A Father’s Journey with His Wordless Daughter; Donna M. Johnson, author of Holy Ghost Girl; and Leila Levinson, author of Gated Grief.
These authors toyed with the idea of writing memoirs for years – Leila, who taught Holocaust literature at St. Edward’s Unviersity, delved into a lifetime of research after she found old WWII photographs of her late father that revealed him to be a liberator of a concentration camp. Completely boggled by this news she’d been completely unaware of until then, she began to research transgenerational trauma, or the notion of transferable trauma from one survivor to second and further generations.
Donna was a young child when she was immersed in her part-time stepfather’s Evangelist tent revivals along the Sawdust trail in the 60’s and 70’s. She held these experiences inside for years until college. She found herself writing about her evangelist upbringing in creative writing courses where, she joked, she always received A’s on her pieces.
Robert’s daughter Schuyler was born with a disability called polymicrogyria, a rare neurological disorder. He started blogging when she was very young, and then decided to incorporate his anecdotes, hardships and successes as a father into a book that became a sort of love letter to his daughter.
The panelists all agreed that with memoir writing comes a certain requirement of discretion toward yourself and the people you’re writing about. Donna spoke of her strong reservations when deciding whether or not to write a memoir that would make vulnerable the lies and deception that went on inside the tent revivals as well as her family unit; “What sort of person does this to her family? And I thought, ‘a writer.'” Leila experienced some conflict with her brother through the publishing of her memoir, explaining that it’s no easy feat when your family lives in the silence of the past, and as siblings living in the same household, they came away with two radically different perspectives of traumatic events. Robert’s publisher hired a lawyer to go over each sentence in his book, marking anything that could get him in trouble. Having included a chapter in his book detailing personal marital conflicts with his wife, Robert said that it’s one thing when you’re in your house with the lights dimmed, typing on your laptop, and another when the manuscript is being passed along between in-laws, and up for publication in major magazines. The panelists stressed that in a writer’s unyielding efforts to tell the truth and portray an honest image, remember that you don’t have to include everything.
When asked about the research and process of memoir writing, the panelists offered that memoir writing should be the act of opening yourself up to surprise. Donna said, “Hopefully you’re discovering your story as you go along.” Leila returned to her childhood house to find inspiration; she also took her family with her to the northeast to conduct interviews with survivors.
Donna mustered up the courage to return to a tent revival, wanting to take in the sights and smells and reacquaint herself with the specific drawl of the southern preachers. Robert’s research and subject was right there in his home. He said the real research is watching Schuyler grow up. When he wrote the book she was a toddler, but now, as he works on a follow-up book, she’s fifteen and is a self-actualized human who has more expectations of privacy.
If there was one obvious takeaway from November 20th’s Third Thursday, it was that memoir writing certainly takes courage. While there are clear personal struggles over what to include or exclude, the humility of loved ones hinge on your decisions. Deciding what to reveal may not be so easy, but then, so much can be learned when you just go for it.
Lily Angelle is an intern with The Writers’ League, and writes screenplays and short fiction in her free time. She aspires to have her work published one day in the near to reasonably eventual future. When she’s not writing, Lily is scouring thrift stores for cool old things or jogging around parts of Austin with ample foliage.