Ask yourself this question when writing about personal and family secrets

Advice columns are among my favorite parts of my morning paper. I’m interested in the crazy dilemmas about which people write, and I enjoy second-guessing the advisor.

Yesterday, Amy Dickinson of “Ask Amy” mentioned the Association of Personal Historians, of which I’m a member. A former president of the APH seconded Amy’s advice to “Wondering,” who was writing her memoir and trying to determine if she should include incidents of sexual abuse that happened to her as a child (click here for Ask Amy’s exchange). “Paula” suggested memoirists ask the question, “what is the benefit in writing/telling? If the revelation will explain something about the individual, it can be important to share, such as ‘This is why I was always so overprotective about my own children.'”

As the author of a memoir some have called “brave” and “honest,” I tend towards telling more rather than less, but this question, “What is the benefit?” is an excellent barometer. Knowing the ugly details of sticky situations can help others make better informed decisions, but truth-telling for the sake of being hurtful helps no one, least of all the teller.

In general, secrets born of shame hold less power when exposed. But intentions matter, and asking “why are you telling this story now?” is useful to consider.

The timing of this Ask Amy column is particularly useful to me this week — I’m appearing Thursday evening at Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin, Ill. to talk about “Writing About Challenging Life Events.” It’s free; call the library to register, 847/742-2411.


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