BE PROTECTIVE – Guard your integrity and that of your subject
By Merrilyn Williams aka Mel Menzies
Are you an author or reader bursting to spill the beans? Have you ever felt the urge to write your memoirs, but held back because you feel uncomfortable about revealing all? Especially if it involves speaking ill of others? How could it be right to tell the world that your great grandfather was a thief, you argue? How could you live with yourself if writing your memoir is equivalent to ‘casting the first stone’? Or highlighting the speck in your brother’s eye, while failing to spot the plank in your own?
As the author of a number of biographical books, those are questions I’ve posed to myself on many an occasion. And I’m not alone.
FEAR OF REPERCUSSIONS
The question of integrity falls broadly into two camps. Moral. And Legal. In this post, I’m going to deal only with the former. There is, though, a sub-factor. That of fear.
I wrote, last month, about The First of the 5 Ps of Blogging and Writing– Be Passionate, in which I told the story of my Facebook friend who wanted to pen an open letter to a member of the UK government, giving details of her daughter’s disability. Her concern was that she might be inviting undue, and possibly distressing, media attention if what she’d written were to end up in the hands of the national newspapers or broadcasters. Her desire was to protect her daughter from harm.
This is a valid concern.
BROKEN CONTRACTS, UNPUBLISHED BOOKS
Many years ago, I was commissioned by Hodder & Stoughton to write the wartime experiences of a Polish man. As a child, he had witnessed the bloody and barbaric slaughter of his parents, and was then interned in a Soviet prisoner of war camp with his sister. What he saw and endured was beyond belief. As was his survival and eventual escape – via Iraq and Africa. Finding himself, after a long and tortuous journey, recuperating in a Devonshire hospital, he met his wife-to-be and ultimately came to faith in God.
It was a traumatic tale. And inevitably, during the telling of it, Peter became increasingly immersed in the terror of his memories. Eventually, despite the support of his lovely wife and church, it became clear that publication of his story was not on. His panic had grown to such an extent that he became convinced he might be found and imprisoned once more. The book contract – rightly – was cancelled.
For somewhat different reasons, the rug was pulled from beneath a second contract for a book I was commissioned to write for Hodder. On this occasion, it was the testimony of a woman who was paralysed as the result of a riding accident. Told she would never walk again, she eventually found a faith that defied the doctors’ prognosis.
Her story, though, was harrowing, and as the narrative progressed, it became clear that it did not put her husband in a good light. On the grounds that he was about to receive an honour from Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace, he felt that his wife’s disclosures about his behaviour shed too dark a shadow on his integrity. The book was never published.
So what, if you’re wanting to write your own memoirs, do you do to avert these fears?
OVERCOMING THE MORAL DILEMMA
As I’ve said before, the God-given commission that started me writing – and from which I’ve never deviated – was to ‘comfort (help, advise, support, encourage, inform) others with the comfort (ditto) I had received.’ Returning, again, to the theme in my post last month, you will no doubt realise that I am passionate about the merits of story. And for good reason! Imagine the Bible as a series of bulleted instructions to ‘do the right thing’ (to quote the oft over-used sound-bite of the day) rather than a series of stories about human failure, Divine intervention and triumph. How many of us, I wonder, would last the course?
So when my life began to evolve in a series of tragedies: fifteen years of my husband’s adultery, having to attend a clinic for sexually transmitted diseases, finding another woman’s nightdress under my pillow in my bed, and yet another’s dirty washing amongst my laundry, learning of his aborted baby, our divorce, remarriage, holding his hand as he lay in a hospital bed dying of cirrhosis of the liver; all followed by thirteen years of watching one of my daughters destroy her life with heroin, years of roaming the streets expecting to find her dead in a doorway, sleeping in a prostitutes bed (and discussing faith with her over breakfast) when I went to visit my daughter in London, and eventually – five years after she’d kicked the habit - discovering she’d died as a result of a drink spiked with morphine, I knew what I had to do. Write the stories!
WRITE FOR A PURPOSE
Why? Because it was cathartic? Perhaps. To make money? Not much sign of that! To make a name for myself? Well - I’ve been in Chat magazine and on TV. Does that make me a celeb?
There is only one reason why I would want to write about such things. And that’s to show others that no matter how terrible the circumstances life might throw at you, no matter how deep your despair, there is One whose love, wisdom, guidance, support and encouragement never fails. My purpose in writing my stories was simple. To comfort others with the comfort I, myself, had received.
HOW & WHY TO BE PROTECTIVENaturally, I was concerned that I should not be hypocritical when divulging my family’s failings. Memoirs must be truthful. Which is where endorsements from those in the know come in.
Certainly, I felt apprehensive about revealing my husband’s and daughter’s identities (both now deceased). Which is why my first three books were published under the name Meg Scott (my middle name plus my nationality) and why, though the facts remained intact, I changed their names and locations. It proved to be a wise move, particularly in the case of my daughter.
But that’s another story. Written as a novel in the mystery genre, it is available to this day as an e-book titled A Painful Post Mortem. Published by Cumcaritas Books (Latin for ‘with love/charity’) proceeds from sales have raised hundreds of pounds for Tearfund and Care for the Family and continue to do so. Buy it. Read it. And let me know what you think.
And don't forget to tell me if you're planning to write something similar. I'd love to know how you got on. Next month we'll be looking at the next of The 5 Ps of Writing: Be Persistent