A few years back, I started working on a memoir about my gender transition. I got about a third the way through the rough draft and quit. In this post, I wanted to share some of the reasons why.
What Can I Add?
For starters, there are already a ton of wonderful, insightful, and entertaining memoirs. I’ve read several of them, my favorite being Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness. Trying to write a transition memoir after reading Mock’s is like following Neil deGrasse Tyson to give a talk about the wonders of astrophysics. After NdGT leaves the stage, what is there left to talk about?
I’ve also read fantastic memoirs by Caroline Cossey, Christine Jorgensen, and Renee Richards. I’ve heard Jenny Boylan’s is fabulous, too.
All of this left me with the question, what do I have to add to the conversation? And I couldn’t come up with a legitimate answer. Yes, everyone’s transition is unique. And we can all learn from each other. But was it enough to push me to spend the time to write and edit a full-memoir? I decided it was not.
Dredging Up the Past
When I started the project, I put together an outline of experiences I wanted to include. And the more I wrote down, the more experiences I remembered. It should come up as no surprise that a LOT of these experiences were very emotionally painful. And even twenty to thirty years later, it was triggering to bring them up from the depths of memory.
It was bad enough experiencing them the first time. Pulling them into my mind sufficiently to bring them alive on the page was equally traumatic. The fear. The humiliation. The abandonment. The loneliness. The reckless behaviors. The abuse. Yes, I now had the benefit of hindsight and lots of healthy coping tools I didn’t have before. But the pain was still there.
Was it worth reliving all of that in order to write a memoir? I decided it was not.
Eyewitness testimony is one of the least reliable forms of evidence. Interview witnesses to a hit and run, and one person will swear it was a white guy in a blue van. Someone else will insist it was a black woman in a silver Mini Cooper. Another witness will tell you it was a three-year-old on a tricycle. It’s crazy!
I found myself questioning my own recollections. Did my first forays into the queer community happen during college or after? Was I married yet or not? Did I need to mention real names? Or should I change them to protect people’s identities. And even if I did, would other people still know who I was talking about? What was it my mother said when I first came out to her? Was it when she discovered the women’s underwear package in my trash can or after my wife caught me cross-dressed?
I found myself guessing at a lot of the stuff. In part because it had been decades since I started my transition. And in part because there was a lot of stuff I hadn’t bothered to remember accurately. Also, there was a lot of alcohol abuse during that time.
I reached a point where I said, enough is enough. I’d rather just write fiction. In fiction, I can make whatever shit up I want. I can create events and characters and locations out of whole cloth. The only rule is to keep the reader reading.
Should You Write Memoir or Fiction?
Ultimately, that’s a question you have to answer for yourself. When people survive a deeply traumatic experience, there is a often a desire to write about it in memoir. Or people will say, “You know, you should write a book about that experience.” I got that a lot.
But here’s the thing. Writing is a skill that takes years to get good at. And you get good at it by writing a lot. The first book I wrote was garbage and never published. My second book wasn’t quite as bad, but will hopefully never see the light of day. I also wrote several short stories of varying quality.
It wasn’t until I wrote and heavily edited my third novel that I had something worth publishing, and that was Iron Goddess.
Learn Your Craft
So if your first book out of the gate is a memoir, it’s probably going to be pretty crappy. Because it takes time to learn how to tell a story in an entertaining way, even if it’s a mostly true story. Balancing action and narration and even dialogue is a skill that takes experience to learn. Learning how to avoid info dumps and how to develop characters (even one’s based on real people) takes time.
What is Your Why?
You have to ask yourself why you want to write a memoir. Are expecting to write a bestseller? Highly unlikely. Better odds playing the lottery.
Are you wanting to simply share your story with like-minded people or with people facing similar obstacles? That’s awesome. But you might want to hone your craft with other projects before you tackle the memoir. Because most memoirs are BORING.
Just because something bad happened to you and you grew a lot from the experience doesn’t mean other people want to read your accounting of it. That’s not to diminish what you’ve been through, but you really have to consider things from the point of view of the reader. Trauma doesn’t automatically turn you into Hemingway.
An alternative to writing a memoir is to write fiction inspired by what you’ve experienced or that thematically explores issues that you had to address in recovering from your specific trauma. Writing a novel gives you the flexibility to play with location, characters, and events so that you need not be beholden to lived history.
Ultimately, it’s your choice. Be realistic about your expectations. Live with the consequences.