Recently, when I shared on Facebook that my mother banned me from her birthday after reading my new memoir, Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity, dozens of friends piped up with variations on this sentiment: "That's why I'm waiting until my mother dies to write my memoir."
As part of my preparation for teaching at the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat this March, I came up with seven reasons not to wait.
1. You're a grownup -- and yet you're letting your mom send your writer soul to its room, not for an afternoon, but for decades? Seems like it would get in the way of you truly owning your adulthood.
2. Waiting means that a part of you is anticipating her demise. Not pleasant.
3. Mid-life is a powerful checking-in point. My book came out right before my 40th birthday. I'm really glad that I took the time to set down the bits and bobs of those first four decades. I have much more room in my memory suitcase as I embark on the second half.
4. Memory degrades over time. Why sacrifice the clarity of well-remembered scenes and insights to fear of disapproval? I'm also guessing that it's a lot harder to edit down 60+ years worth of life arc than 30 or 40.
5. She won't be able to be proud of you. Because even though she might not like some of the ways you remember your childhood, you're still her daughter or son, and you got a book published!
6. Kids whose moms are total characters really can't help but write about this incredibly influential person who sashayed and scenery-chewed through their childhoods. It's the ultimate "write what you know."
7. To be a mother is to be very visibly imperfect. I am a daughter, and a mother. I have already given my kids enough material to write a book that would make me shrivel with mortification, and I'm braced for that. Mothers are not saints. We're raising humans, and that will bring out the worst, along with the best, in a person. If our society could just get that, mothers all over the place could stop feeling inadequate. Honest memoirs break down the destructive myth of the perfect mother.
When I was in my 20s, I wrote a thinly veiled autobiographical young adult book, in which the -- ahem -- main character's mother was sometimes quite a piece of work. And I felt so riddled with guilt about this portrayal that I pulled the book from the market (my agent was shopping it around) and put it in a drawer. Where it remains.
And it was such a mistake. The shelved manuscript booed me incessantly, like the crone in The Princess Bride. It depressed me, as I was pretty sure that I blew my big chance.
It took me 10 years to get over the shame of knowing that I derailed my writing dreams because I was worried about what my mother would think.
When I was given another opportunity to write a book -- a memoir -- about food and family (Licking the Spoon), I knew that I would not biff twice. I wrote it. And here's the important thing. I'm not advocating a bunch of eye-for-an-eye, score-settling, "you never made homemade cookies" payback. Be judicious.
I left out or subsequently cut many scenes that made individuals look less than saintly. I included ones that the plot really hung on, and it was a balancing act. That doesn't mean every single person in the world is going to agree with my choices, but I do feel at peace with it.
Birthing from Within author Pam England once shared in a talk that we mothers worry and worry about doing something wrong, failing our children in some way, and, she said, no matter how hard we try, we do. And when it happens -- that searing moment of shame -- we know it will be the reason our kid ends up in therapy. "And it's true!" she said. "They will end up in therapy. But it's never about the thing you remember. It's something you never even registered."
I also found that the things I thought my mother would bristle at in my book didn't register. She ended up getting hung up on something I didn't think would bother her. So there you go.
We write for many reasons, but when it comes to successful memoir, I think it's especially true that we write to say, "This is how I lived it. This is how I felt it. This is what formed me." And when we read memoir, some of the most powerful moments are when we say, "Me, too! I thought I was the only one." That happens a lot. It shows that we're all so much less alone, and odd, than we think we are.
It doesn't work so well when the reader is someone who can say, "I was there -- and that's not how I remember it at all!" But after that initial static, once the dust settles, whole new levels of conversation -- and closeness -- are possible.