Years ago, another lifetime ago, I was wandering around Munro’s Books in Victoria and found a book called The Key and the Name of the Key is Willingness. It had a plain grey cover, nothing exciting, and the author was Anonymous. Inside, everything was handwritten and that was it, ka-ching, the gosh darn book was mine.
I understood not a jot, found the Zen content cryptic, circular and frustrating. Yet I held on to that book and tried reading it again and again. Each time I abandoned it, picking out random words but finding the material impenetrable. A decade and some years later, after I'd already donated the book to a bin at the library, I came across a similar one and realized the author was one and the same, Cheri Huber. I tried the Key book once more, ignoring the part of my brain where my Inner Critic resides and says things like, “This slim volume is much valued for its clarity and simplicity and you couldn’t get through it, huh?
The meandering title has been on my mind. The key and the name of the key in writing memoir is ethics. Much has been said about this by many wise people, like Cheryl Strayed's famous line "If you're going to show anyone's ass, it better be your own." Kerry Cohen put her experience, research and interviews with other writers on the topic together in The Truth of Memoir - I highly recommend it as good company on your memoiring path.
Yes, there are those who say “Do what you want, who cares?” I have never been able to listen to those people, not because I care what everyone thinks but because I have lost much sleep over slips or snubs of kindness, perceived or real. I used to think I was a freak about this stuff and then I heard George Saunder’s gorgeous commencement speech where he mentions being haunted by a young girl from his childhood: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness,” Saunders said. “Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.” His emphasis on the importance of kindness, what an enormous relief.
This is not to say that you need to be kind when writing about cruelty or abuse – that’s another story, another post. But when you’re writing about others, keep your sight-lines on the truth, ditch both the rose-coloured memories and scarlet-soaked rants. You may find out that you will have to write your way through both, to get the muck and mire out of the way. Like a teenager penning bad sonnets, it’s a step in the write direction. (I know, but I.couldn't.help.myself.)
Simple. You got to not talk dirty.