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I tried and tried, but I couldn’t quite relax on the page, and it showed. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was hiding my truth. I was afraid. Speaking – and writing - our truth is scary. We fear ridicule, judgment, the pure vulnerability of exposure.
memoir tells the story of my attempts to save my aging Hippie mother from drug addiction, and the journey I took towards saving myself instead. It felt risky to write this book, and risky to publish it. I was afraid that those who knew my mother and loved her would look down on me for not ultimately saving her, and that they would judge me as harsh and unfeeling for walking away. On the other hand, I was also afraid that people who didn’t know my mother would think me a fool for throwing so much of my life away as her caregiver.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes. In order to make the book successful, I had to tell the truth about those mistakes. I had to come clean about my flaws. But coming clean was for brave people, not writer-wimps like me. I wasn’t ready.
So I fictionalized the book. Even though I’ve never been a fiction writer, and had no idea how to write a novel, I messed around with it for nearly a year. I changed the names, added embellishments here and there, and experimented with telling the story in present tense rather than past. This freed me up to be more honest, since it wasn’t really me I was writing about anymore.
But then I found a publisher who wanted to publish it, and once that happened, I was struck with a whole new panic. They were going to publish my true story… as a novel? No matter how many names I’d changed, scenes I’d recreated a little more dramatically, or time periods I’d truncated, this was not a novel. There was nothing about the story that wasn’t essentially true. The basic DNA of it wasn’t imagined – it was remembered. The essential structure - the story of those three years at the end of my mother’s life, intertwined with six years of my childhood, remained.
I had to decide what would be worse: to tell my truth as fiction, and thus be perceived as hiding (and rightly so), or to put it out there as my truth, and risk being thought of as self-indulgent, shameful, incompetent, or worse. It was my ego versus my soul.
Ultimately it was about integrity. I had to be honest. I had to publish it as a memoir. I had to revert it back to the real names, the real timelines, the real scenes. When I proposed the idea to the publisher, they were thrilled. “It’s much more effective as a memoir,” she said. Of course it is, I thought to myself, because it is a memoir.
But that wasn’t the end of the fear. When the publisher set a date for release of the book, I wasn’t just afraid, I was petrified. What if my writer friends and the publishers were all wrong, and it wasn't any good? Not only had I written a book, it was about me, and I was being honest about that. I'd be ruined forever as a writer and a person. What if people didn’t read it? What if they did and hated it? My dream of becoming an author would be dead. Finished. Kaput.
Luckily, none of that happened. Instead, when I crawled out from under the tortoise shell of fear and shame, I was greeted with an amazingly positive reception. Contrary to my fears, readers have found the book compelling. It seems that because I did write my truth as honestly as I could, people are responding.
What I’ve learned is this: At the point of no return, when you are writing a book, and later, when your book is being published, you have to shut the door on your ego. You have to trust that the world is a (mostly) loving and supportive place. And you have to build a solid enough community of reader-friends who will tell you when the book is ready for publication, and when it is not.
The scariest story of them all is your own – when you’re trying to write it. But Mary Karr and Andre Dubois III and Cheryl Strayed all say the same thing, and having experienced it, I now agree: You have to strip away your protective defenses, smash your urges to sugar coat the truth, and turn yourself inside out in order to make the writing work. You have to expose your truth, even when it makes you look bad – no, especially when it makes you look bad, because in the end, that courage, that honesty, especially in memoir, is what will make it shine.
|Candace Kearns Read is the author of the memoir The Rope Swing (Eagle Wings Press, Sep 2016). She is a screenwriter who has also been a Hollywood script reader for actors and directors, including the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Michelle Pfeiffer. Her screenplays have been optioned by producers and developed with Fox, Disney, HBO, and Lifetime. She teaches creative writing for Antioch University and the Young Writers Program at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She’s the author of the screenwriting handbook Shaping True Story into Screenplay, and co-author of the memoir Bogie’s Bike. Her essays have appeared in fullgrownpeople.com, The Manifest-Station, and The Rumpus.|