As part of my Memoir March challenge, I posed a two-part question to several memoirist friends. What was the most difficult part of writing your memoir? How did you overcome this difficulty? Here’s the answer that Liane Kupferberg Carter gave.
About the Book
How do you create an ordinary family life, while dealing with the extraordinary needs of an autistic child?
Meet Mickey–charming, funny, compassionate, and autistic. In this unflinching portrait of family life, Liane Kupferberg Carter gives us a mother’s insight into what really goes on in the two decades after diagnosis. From the double-blow of a subsequent epilepsy diagnosis, to bullying and Bar Mitzvahs, Mickey’s struggles and triumphs along the road to adulthood are honestly detailed to show how one family learned to grow and thrive with autism.
“There are books written about families, and there are books written about autism, and in Ketchup is My Favorite Vegetable, Liane seamlessly weaves the two together to create a beautiful and heart-tugging story that will stay with you for a long time. In its purest sense, this is a love story–about two parents and the love they share for each other and for their sons, one of whom has autism.” ~ Better After 50 Magazine
Opening a Vein
My younger child was not yet two when the doctors told us, “don’t expect higher education for your son.” His disability was the earthquake at the center of our lives. Even though I was a journalist, I couldn’t write about his diagnosis. The pain was too raw. One day, many years and articles later, my editor at Family Life Magazine asked if I’d be willing to write something personal. She wanted to know what it was like to raise a child with special needs.
“There’s nothing to writing,” Hemingway once said. “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
And he wasn’t even talking about writing memoir.
Once I opened that vein, I couldn’t stanch the flow. Essays poured out of me, many of which were published in The New York Times parenting blog. I wrote about what perplexed me. Terrified me. Gave me hard-earned joy. Eventually, I began to chafe against the constraints of a 1000 word essay. I had a novel-length story about family upheaval and healing to tell. But how do you balance sharing your family’s story with protecting its privacy?
What Not to Do
I knew what not to do.
Years earlier, I’d been horrified when a woman I knew published a memoir about the difficulties she experienced when she adopted her infant son. She described him as “feral.” She revealed graphic, even appalling details about his antisocial behaviors and toileting mishaps. Did she ask his permission to tell those stories? Doubtful. Today he’s a teenager. How does he feel that there’s a permanent, public record of his early, traumatic years?
Writing instructors often exhort students to write “as fearlessly as if you were an orphan.” But what are the ethics when writing about your children? How much is ok to reveal? What should the boundaries be? I would never knowingly write something that might embarrass or blame anyone in my family. But what if somehow I inadvertently jeopardized my relationships with my kids anyhow?
All I could steer by was my moral compass. Again and again I checked in with myself: what were my motives in telling a particular incident? How would I have felt if my mother had written details like that about me? If the thought made me squirm, I hit the Delete key.
These were the ground rules I set for myself:
- Memoir is nonfiction. You are bound to tell the “truth.” But memory is by its very nature selective. This is only your version of the truth. Others might tell it very differently.
- Memoir is not about getting even or settling scores. You aren’t the victim of the story. You aren’t the heroine either. Don’t write in the heat of anger. Wait till you have enough time and distance to tell your story fairly, with empathy and respect.
- Memoir isn’t a diary. You don’t have to include everything or reveal all. It’s not necessary — or even desirable. Write boldly, but edit ruthlessly.
- Memoir requires the same techniques as fiction. The facts provide the scaffolding, but it’s still all about voice, scene, dialogue, characters, pacing, and narrative arc.
- It’s not therapy. The process of writing memoir can be therapeutic, but unless your writing moves other people, you haven’t done your job.
Anne Lamott is lauded all the time for saying, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” That’s flippant. Yes, we own what happened to us. But do we own what happened to our significant others, just because it affected us too? Especially our children, who can’t defend themselves?
My kids didn’t ask for a mother who’s a writer, though they’re proud of what I do. Mary Karr, author of The Art of Memoir, puts it perfectly: “My son prefers me as a dispenser of waffles, not a literary figure.”
About Liane Kupferberg Carter
Liane Kupferberg Carter is the author of Ketchup Is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism (Jessica Kingsley Publishers). Her work has been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and numerous literary journals, blogs and book anthologies. Her essay “A Room of My Own” was listed as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2016.