My latest writing project is the memoir of my childhood growing up on a dairy farm. The working title is Farm Girl: A Memoir. It’s the most difficult writing I’ve tackled so far because I’m too close to the subject to be objective. When I allow the memories to flood into my conscious mind, it’s hard to sort through them, deciding what is pertinent and what is not, what would be interesting to readers and what would bore them.
Another issue is how I can present negative memories in a way that won’t hurt or embarrass my family members. I’m trying to tell the truth, but sometimes strong emotions are attached to the people and events of my childhood. It’s a challenging balancing act.
This project began as a series of journal entries, an exercise in catharsis. I wanted to understand why some memories from growing up were tinged with sadness or regret, why they affected me negatively. I hoped my journaling would serve to diffuse their intensity, and that’s what happened.
Amid the process of pulling my stories together, I had the privilege of editing Dave Cariens’s book, Eight Steps to Writing Your Memoir for High Tide Publications. All his straight-forward tips and exercises were useful, but I found his advice especially helpful. In the section about handling sensitive subjects, he says:
“Every family has problems, and every family has a black sheep or two. So how do you deal with those issues?
You will need to give careful thought to this aspect of your memoir. The people you are writing about may be people you love very much. You need to be honest, tactful, respectful, and understanding in dealing with individuals with problems.
In my memoir, I had to tackle the mental illness and alcoholism of both my mother and my brother. This was painful but had to be done. It took me a long time, and many drafts, to settle on the words that were honest, but respectful to the people I loved.” (p. 40)
Before I submit my memoir for publication, I’ll ask my three siblings to read and approve it. If there are parts they find disturbing or too revealing about our family, I’ll consider re-writing or deleting those sections. After all, it’s not my goal to publish a scathing exposé about our family or to hurt anyone. But, as Cariens points out, it’s important to “establish a bond of truth and trust with the reader.” He reasons that readers can see through our cleaned-up versions of the truth and will feel betrayed if we are less than honest and forthright.
Farm Girl: A Memoir is still a work-in-progress, but I hope to have it ready for publication by fall 2019. In the meantime, my sister-in-law is sorting through photographs my parents left behind and promises to send me any shots I can use. As the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Undoubtedly, the addition of photos like the ones above will enhance my stories, but there’s another saying attributed to Penina Finger that all writers must embrace if their work is to speak to readers and have lasting value:
“A picture may be worth a thousand words, but well-chosen words will take you where pictures never can.”
Wish me luck as I attempt to choose my words well.
Cindy L. Freeman is the author of two award-winning short stories and three published novels: Unrevealed, The Dark Room and I Want to Go Home. Website: www.cindylfreeman.com; Facebook page: Cindy Loomis Freeman. Her books are available through amazon.com or hightidepublications.com