On Writing Your Truth
Two years ago, I published His Mother! Women Write about Their Mothers-in-law with Humor, Frustration, and Love. The work on that project spanned ten years. I knew from the start that many women I knew would not be able to participate. I was told as much by several. Why? They feared the backlash and talk that would result if they wrote a truthful piece.
Those of us raised in the South are particularly susceptible to that kind of fear. Why? Because we are raised to hide ugliness and “unpleasantness” (as it is often phrased) in order to preserve the façade of perfection. We don’t want people talking about us or our family except in glowing and envious terms. We don’t “air our dirty laundry.” And in spite of what Julia Sugarbaker said, we do not parade our “crazy” on the front porch or in the living room. No, not at all. We call it “eccentricity” and admire it from a cool, but dutiful, distance.
But in my research on the subject of mother-in-law relationships, I found overwhelmingly that the relationship was terribly misaligned. Despite the jokes and television series and hours of long private conversations with our best friends about the problems inherent in the relationships, the realiaty is that on the whole they were overwhelmingly positive. So, I persevered through the process of publication.
That time span was a good thing for me. In my own situation, my story about my mother-in-law changed four times. Those revisions followed the path of her slow demise and the shifting of my relationship with her. My story went from outright anger and resentment, to one of honesty and acceptance, and finally, to one of forgiveness. And that was good for my soul, if not for the story itself.
HOWEVER. And that’s a big HOWEVER. Since the publication of the book, I have had to field questions, mild scoldings, and down-right hurtful remarks about why I chose to reveal private, “for family only” experiences to be devoured by the public. I have always answered these with truth: “My husband suggested that whenever I’m confronted about this story, I should refer the questioners to him or to relay to the questioner exactly how my husband would answer, and that is: ‘She could have written far more and very much worse.’”
I take comfort in the fact that my husband approved every single draft I wrote. In fact, he often asked me why I didn’t tell about when she did so and so or reveal how she handled this or that. My answer to him was always, “First, I think I’ve revealed the most important things. Besides, some of the other stuff, people would just say I lied. They wouldn’t believe it.”
We always share a good laugh over that. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Some people asked me if all of the story was, in fact, true. Had I not thrown in a bit of fictional writing to jazz things up a bit? To titillate? To sell more copies?
The answer is an emphatic NO.
Every word is true.
Why would I make things up when the truth was already so “jazzed, titillating, and would sell like crazy?”
I remember years ago when I first began writing to publish my work, every lecture, course, or book on writing warned of this situation—tell the truth, and people are going to eat you alive. A writer friend of mine, Ryan Crawford, just wrote a true story (“Earmouths,” published in Wild, Wonderful ‘n Wacky, South Cackalacky) and made this statement which I have printed and hung in my study: “You get really honest with folks, and they’ll turn on you every time.”
True. Very, very true.
I thought I’d grown tough enough to take the negative remarks that happen sometimes and are made by both critics and readers. And for the most part, I do well at shrugging them away. But today, I heard one that infuriated me. (And yes, I trust the source that informed me, implicitly. And yes, I know who made the comments.) This was the situation:
“I heard Sandy’s story in His Mother is downright nasty.”
“Uhhh….nasty? What do you mean ‘nasty’? It’s a story about her relationship with her mother-in-law.”
“I know what it’s about. We’ve discussed it at my book club time and time again. It’s nasty. She shouldn’t have written it.”
“Well, ummm…I’ve read the whole book. There’s nothing ‘nasty’ in any of the stories. In fact, most are really sweet. Have you read the book?”
“No. But my book club has discussed her story over and over. It’s nasty. I don’t want to read it.”
“It’s not nasty. It’s a true story, and it’s a story of her being sad that her mother-in-law was so mean and missed out on so much love because of it. It’s about Sandy finally being able to forgive her for all the hateful things she did. It’s not nasty at all. It’s true that it tells some pretty personal things that happened in terms of her mother-in-law’s actions toward others in the family, but it is certainly not nasty.”
“Well, that’s what they say in my book club, and I’m not reading it.”
My response to this: Have any members of this book club read it? I probably know most of the women in this club. If they have read it and feel this way, my first response is to snap: “How in the world did they miss the regret, the sorrow, the forgiveness so entwined in that story. Do they know how to read? Do they understand what they read? And how is it 'nasty'?
But I won’t say any of that. I will simply state what my husband advised me to state, “I could have written far more and very much worse.”
Those opinions sting, of course. But the thing that troubles me most is that people go about spreading these kinds of blatant opinions when they have not even read the story. And not just my story—other stories—good stories with worthwhile messages. What is that all about? Censorship? Jealousy? What is so ‘nasty’ about truth? About honesty? About being real? Where is the ‘nasty’ in any of those things?
Now, had this person (or anyone in the book club) honestly read the book and my story and created an honest critique or review based on facts taken from the writings or facts from anywhere to contradict what I wrote, then that is another thing altogether. Further, why don’t they post that honest review on Amazon or somewhere and substantiate what they say and be “man or woman” enough to sign a name to it. (It might push sales higher! --you know that old titillating thing again.)
Like I always told my children, “I can deal with the truth. But there’s no way to deal with a lie.” And this whole opinion is just that—a lie. This person claimed something about the story and hadn't even read the story.
Readers may not like the story. They may not relish telling their own stories, but they should actually read it before voicing and spreading an opinion about it.
Furthermore, comments like this are sort of like the political battles that rage on Facebook and Twitter and any number of on-line forums. There’s a lot of opinionating going on based on very little fact and research. The all-powerful “they” say something, and people repeat it as the gospel truth.” But spreading untruths and denigrating a book, a person, a place, a thing just because “they” say it, is simply stupid. It is a ‘nasty’ thing you do when you do it. Much like gossip, or political rantings.
I am proud to say I am not “A Nasty Woman .” I do not write nasty things made from lies.
But maybe I’ll write a second volume of this book…wonder what “they” would say if I told the “far more and the very much worse”? hmmmm…..
Happy reading y’all.
And if you are a writer: Happy, truthful writing. Be brave. Be fearless. But be advised that “they” are out there and will turn on you.
Nevertheless, go for it! Write your truth.