Sari Botton of The Rumpus just released her newest installment of “Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me.” In this series, Botton interviews some of the memoirists she admires to explore the reasons why they chose to write memoir, and how they were able to find the courage and strength to do so. The most recent article is an interview with author Elisa Albert. In the article, Botton expresses her concerns with writing about people who are still alive; namely, her parents. Reading the article made me think about my own challenges in writing memoir, and got me thinking more about writing memoir under a fake name.
Several people have asked me why I don’t just write my memoir using a pseudonym. Their reasoning is that, if I used a pseudonym, no one would really know who I am. More importantly, no one would know who the people in my memoir really are. After all, the other people in my memoir are merely innocent bystanders, right? They didn’t ask to have their stories told, their secrets aired to the world. I strongly believe, however, that writing a memoir under a pseudonym is destructive for two reasons.
The first, and most important reason, is that the difference between a memoir and a novel is that a memoir is a true story. Of course, there’s no way to write a completely true story. All writers of creative nonfiction have to take creative liberties in reconstructing events. While Truman Capote boasted an impressive 96% accuracy in recalling conversations, even he couldn’t get it all right. And even if he did remember all the right words, everyone interprets events in different ways. If you videotaped a day of your life and watched it with the people who were there with you, each of you would tell the story of that day differently. But the point is that memoir is based on true events. The power in reading memoir comes from the knowledge and the belief of the reader that these things really happened to a real person.
If a writer uses a pseudonym when writing memoir, they are basically removing that element of realism and belief that makes memoir what it is. If you aren’t able to put your name on your story, you may want to consider changing some of it around and calling it a novel. Just know that even if you do call it a novel, the people in your life will still see themselves in the characters and be upset. It does provide more of a cushion, but there’s really no “safe” way to tell your story – it’s always a risk.
Secondly, even if you do choose to use a pseudonym, in this day and age, it wouldn’t take long for people to find out who you really are. Gone are the days of using a pen name and retreating to a little cottage in Cape Cod, anonymously mailing your work to publishers, denying all interviews and appearances. Even those writers got found out eventually, and that was long before the internet existed. Besides, in hiding, you would miss any opportunities you’d have to connect with the people who relate with your story. I certainly wouldn’t want to give that up, especially if I wrote a book that helped people come to terms with their own experiences.
Memoir is all about owning up to the past – your past. The idea of writing an autobiographical novel is a different issue, and one worth exploring in its own entry. I feel that a memoir is only as honest as the person writing it, and in hiding your name and your identity, you aren’t being honest with yourself or the world. As for the innocent bystanders in your story, all you can do is change their names, and hope they will understand your need to share your story. We all have a right to tell our stories, and we shouldn’t let fear or other people take that right away from us.
If you feel an urge to write your story, as Elisa Albert says in Botton’s interview, just write it. Don’t think about publication or hurting the people you’re writing about. Write it for yourself. If you decide to share it, then you can go back and choose which parts you want to share with the world.