“Have you shown the excerpts to Jay yet?” the attorney from the legal department at Simon & Schuster asked.
My stomach dropped.
I had just submitted the final draft of my memoir, This Is How I Save My Life—about my struggle through debilitating illness, where much of the story was intertwined with the unraveling of my long-time relationship with my then-boyfriend, Jay.
This memoir had been a long time coming. The book I’d always wanted to write. It was the book I convinced myself would make me the ‘real writer’ I’d always dreamed of being. I was already a successful self-help author, with two books and a few well-placed personal essays. But memoir had always been my true writing love. And that book did indeed make me a real writer. It wasn’t because of the genre at all. It was because it wasn’t until I wrote my memoir that I learned how to fully tell the truth in my work.
And it turns out that’s what being a real writer is all about.
It also turns out that the truth was more complex than I thought.
In my works up until that point, I wrote stories based on what I wanted to highlight or put forth to the reader. There was always a lesson or an angle I aimed to deliver. Personal essays and prescriptive pieces had always afforded me the freedom to share only parts of any story that helped make my desired point to my audience. I was easily able to dodge the sticky part of truth-telling: discomfort.
It had been years since Jay and I broke up, but the rockiness of our relationship, amidst the impossible circumstances of my illness, reverberated. I still felt guilty for the years stolen from us when we were forced to trade bar nights for IV treatments. But even though I was still worried about opening old wounds with Jay, I knew what I had to do. Because, trust me when I tell you, if you are writing the truth while still trying to hide from it in some way, your readers will know. You will get emails asking about the parts they felt were missing, and you’ll get reviews that say something felt plastic or touched-up (in so many words, but probably much worse).
I knew I needed to write the truth, but how? I didn’t know how to actually execute that. So, I committed to focusing on vulnerability—which is what I loved the most about the books I loved the most. I specifically promised myself I’d be ten times more vulnerable than I felt comfortable being. That I’d go to places I never had in my writing. That I’d protect no one, and I’d write my story. I vowed to myself that I would not let my writing be bullied by my critics, invisible or otherwise. Jay, especially.
But here’s what I didn’t see coming and where speaking our truth gets sticky. My truth wasn’t the most important part about writing my story.
Writing the truth is not an exercise in compassion for others or even yourself—it’s an exercise in integrity.
Writing the truth means you tell the whole story.
It means you don’t shy away from revealing who the people you write about really are; and you certainly don’t shy away from revealing who you really are either.
It was my memoir that called for me to artfully tell a story in which I was not the expert, the heroine, or the referee of what the truth actually was.
The whole truth. The raw truth, without agenda or manipulation is actually much more interesting anyway.
So, instead of luring the reader onto my side or Jay’s side, I used it as an opportunity to see—and to tell—all the sides. Although I stayed respectful of Jay’s privacy, even as I shed light on his character.
Had I been focused on telling my truth, the book would have turned out very different. I would have outlined all the ways that Jay’s own shortcomings led to the crash-and-burn love we experienced. I also would have omitted the parts I thought Jay would have been upset about—the time when he pushed me, the things he said that crushed my already-fragile spirit, and more. Because that was the language of my love for Jay: be who you are, and I will both blame you for it privately and protect you from it publicly.
Instead, for every "negative" thing I wrote about Jay, I also found some way I could let the reader in on the softer side of him, too. It wasn’t always easy to find, but it was always there.
Jay was a terrible boyfriend. He was also profoundly loving. Jay often spewed hatred toward me, which negatively affected my health. He also saved my life. Jay taught me what in a relationship I would never tolerate again. He also had traits that became my "must-haves" for future relationships.
Beyond my relationship with Jay, I also pushed myself to be transparent about my own shortcomings, too. For every time I thought I was right about something, I found a way to consider I was wrong. I looked at, mostly willingly, all the pieces of me that I’d typically want to hide.
The finished book was a true picture of vulnerability, one I was exceptionally proud of.
When I emailed the final excerpts to Jay at the request of the publisher’s legal department, I was afraid of what he would think. He replied within an hour. “You are the best writer. I’m honored to have been acknowledged,” he wrote. He also said I made him look better than he was. Perhaps I should have done more work on my habit of protecting others, I thought at first. Or maybe the truth was actually worse than I had remembered?
Simon & Schuster was pleased with Jay’s approval, but not as much as I was. Because I eventually concluded that I’d done what real writers do. I had successfully touched on many truths to get to at least a large portion of the whole. Somewhere in that story was my truth, his, and the truth, too.
Commit to the truth and abandon all agenda. Forget what you want readers to take away or see. Show it all to them. Make your sole agenda one thing only: telling the truth.
Find a balance between throwing your loved ones under the bus and over-protecting them. When you feel you want to expose them fully, find a way to protect them. And when you feel you want to protect them, find a way to expose them. Only then can you accurately show your reader who a person really is.
Most importantly, no matter how you choose to write your story, always aim to write the truth, not just yours.
*Feature Image: CurvaBezier (Adobe)