To Write a Better Memoir, Learn This F-Word

Image: Regal illustration of the letter F, rendered in gold on a red background

Today’s guest post is by writer, coach and editor Lisa Cooper Ellison (@lisaellisonspen).

In 2015, I participated in a yearlong memoir class. Nine months into the program our instructor asked us to bring in a scene that included the character who challenged us most. The scene I chose could’ve been titled “The Reason I Hate My Mother.”

During class, our instructor raved about her recent trip to the Tin House Conference and the assignment she’d learned from its founder, Rob Spillman. The lilt in her voice suggested our minds were about to be blown.

We hunched over notebooks and laptops, eager to begin this earth-shattering assignment. When she finished writing our prompt on the board, I glanced up, half expecting to hear a microphone drop. Then I read what she wrote.

Write the scene from your antagonist’s perspective.

Staring at those seven words, I mentally flipped her the bird then bit the inside of my cheek to keep from saying, “Do you know what she’s effing done?”

Throughout our yearlong class, this instructor had been our constant cheerleader, craft guru, and coach who held us accountable. Despite my misgivings, I worked on her crummy assignment. Twenty minutes later, the chain anchoring me to that scene snapped in two. While I wasn’t completely free of the pain I’d experienced, the perspective shift felt alchemical.

Three years later, I began a memoir about my brother’s suicide. I knew that writing about my brother’s tragic end and its aftermath would be emotionally taxing, but I was more concerned about how I’d portray my ex-husband. For years, I’d shared a story about him that began with the phrase, “Let me tell you what he did…”

I’d repeated it so often I knew when listeners would gasp, shake their heads, or say, “No he didn’t!”

Eliminating him from the book was impossible. That thing he did was a major plot point. As a believer in both karma and good writing, I wanted to do justice by my characters. So early in the drafting process, I completed my instructor’s perspective-taking exercise, hoping to experience that alchemy once again.

I gave my first draft to a group of skilled readers who promised to call me on my shit. Their verdict: I’d portrayed my ex as a superficial turd.

He didn’t read much better in draft two.

Or draft three, for that matter.

It took seven drafts for me to forgive him and one more draft (plus six months of wait time) to understand his role in this manuscript. To get there, I had to move past his boneheaded choices and tap into the love we’d once shared.

While it took more time and drafts than I cared for, forgiving him unlocked the story I wanted to tell.

As an instructor and coach, forgiveness is something I now teach. When I use this controversial F-word with writers who’ve been deeply wounded, I get eye rolls and toothy grins that barely hide the bird I know they’re flipping in my direction.

Sometimes the do you know what they did?? is transmitted telepathically. Other clients and students blurt it out.

Most believe forgiveness is like the playground ritual many of us were forced into that goes a little like this:

Some bonehead whacks you upside the head with a dodgeball. On purpose.

When you tell the teacher, there’s an “investigation” followed by a chat where the bonehead whispers an insincere “I’m sorry.”

You think justice is about to be served, but then the teacher looks at you. “Now tell the bonehead you forgive them.”

You don’t forgive them at all, but you say those words, because recess is precious, and this dirtbag has taken up enough of it.

Clients and students forced into this ritual often believe forgiveness means burying your feelings, making it OK for the other person, forgetting what happened, and staying BFFs with someone who hurt you.

But that’s what perpetrators ask victims to do.

Real forgiveness is about empowerment.

We forgive for ourselves.
We do it even if the other person isn’t sorry.
We do it to heal because healing is how we regain our power.
But we don’t begin until we’re ready to engage in the process.

That rehearsed story I’d told was what forgiveness specialist Fred Luskin calls a grievance story. While the responses I’d received were highly satisfying, each rendition kept me in the role of poor victim without any power.

When we forgive, we restore our power by releasing the bonds of hurt chaining us to a specific situation.

Forgiveness isn’t the same as absolution. Bad behavior is still bad behavior. You’ve just shifted the story around it, so the person’s actions no longer harm you.

Stub your toe and it’s likely you’ll curl inward as the pain shoots through you. The harder the impact, the tighter the curl. Pain forces us inward and heightens our sense of separation from others. A sense of separation can obscure the themes, emotions, and larger issues that connect your experience with your readers.

When painful events hold power over you, you’re more likely to say, “But this is how it really happened,” which limits the frames available to you.

You’ll also be less likely to see how your story fits into the conversation happening around this topic.

But rehearsed stories aren’t all bad. When we’re first injured, those stories protect us from feeling our pain all at once. They can also help us get the attention we need. But eventually, they stop serving us.

So how do you forgive your characters?

In The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path of Healing Ourselves and Our World, Desmond Tutu says we must do the following:

  • Tell the rehearsed story.
  • Name the hurt.
  • Grant forgiveness.
  • Renew or release the relationship.

That bird-worthy writing prompt is an essential part of granting forgiveness.

When I teach classes on forgiveness for writers, I include the following prerequisites:

  • Establish boundaries so the person can no longer hurt you.
  • Develop a self-care regimen.
  • Enlist the support of a loving community and, when needed, a therapist.

True forgiveness can take years to achieve. That’s why memoirs take longer to write than novels. But it’s worth the effort—especially if you need to forgive yourself. Forgiveness can not only help you turn painful moments into art, it can help you discover your manuscript’s unique angle.  

But before you get started, feel free to flip me the bird.
I’ll smile and you’ll feel a little better about starting this process.

What questions do you have about forgiveness?
What myths have you created around it?

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