The question of how much to reveal about family and friends in writing often surfaces when I teach workshops. I find the author Terry Tempest Williams strikes a harmonious balance of writing deeply personal accounts of her life, while maintaining a sense of honor and respect to her loved ones. Here's what she has to say about her process of writing memoir:
Interviewee: Memoir can be a very vulnerable genre. How do you set boundaries for yourself in what you are willing to reveal to the reader?
Williams: I don’t set boundaries for myself when I am writing; if I did, I would be paralyzed from the start, unable to write a word on the page. Instead, with each book, I begin with a question or an image: my mother left me her journals and all her journals were blank. Why? What is voice? How did I find mine and where? When did I lose it, retrieve it? What was my mother saying to me?
I write from this place of inquiry. The first draft is a discovery period to see what I know and what I don’t know. My task is simply to follow the words. There are surprises along the way. I just have to get it down. Call it the sculptor’s clay. Revision digs deeper, asks more of me to clarify, enhance, illuminate what I have written and dares me to walk more fully into the shadows to face, confront, and explore what scares me. Through revision, I enter the realm of the unspeakable and find the words that have eluded me.
The discipline of writing a memoir comes in the editing. This is where I cut, slash, and burn—where my creative mind is transformed into a ruthless one. No word escapes my scrutiny. It is here where I see what boundaries need to be set. It is here where what is private disappears and what is personal emerges. There is a difference. What is private belongs to me alone. What is personal belongs to all of us through the shared experience of being human. And it is in the discipline of editing that I can skillfully follow the strands that I am trying to weave together through story. Whatever artistry may occur within the manuscript, the magic happens for me in the last draft. Whatever I have been resistant to say must finally be said. In the end, I see where my pencil has been leading me. It’s not that my questions have been answered, but they have been respected, explored, and saturated with my attention.
Read the full interview here.