Telling the Truth: Writing Memoir without Wounding

          I didn’t set out to write a book about my relationship with my dad. Nearly Orthodox was supposed to be a sort of “conversion story.” I meant to write about my journey, as a liberal, modern woman, into the ancient and sometimes rather conservative Eastern Orthodox church. That is the story I began to tell as I wrote the book.
          The story that emerged, however, as I dug under the surface of each step of that long journey, revealed more about who I was before I ever stepped foot into an Orthodox church. That story, was about my dad’s PTSD while I was growing up. That story was about how my siblings and I compensated for what we lacked. That story was about how I turned to my Catholic practices to guide me though the rough spots. To tell that story, I had to touch on relationships past and present.
          In an interview with Mary Karr on NPR a few years ago, Terry Gross asked how she handled writing about other people in her books, whether she felt an obligation more to that person or to telling the truth. Mary Karr said, among other things, “I try not to guess what people's motives are. I mostly try to deal with what I see and what I do.”
          When writing memoir, we cannot avoid writing about other people in our story. It’s a risky proposition, especially if we hope to remain in a healthy relationship with those people after the book, essay or blog post comes out. Throughout the writing of Nearly Orthodox, whether it was writing about my family, my friends, or my church, I kept these questions before me– How do I write this so that it is my story? How do I tell this story without guessing at someone else’s motives?
          For me, memoir is a kind of narrative wrestling match, or perhaps, an awkward dance we perform—pairing memory and relationship, truth and story. Each element of the work balances the past and the present. I remember as though I am a child floating at sea, but I must constantly remind myself that I am here on the shore, writing from the solid ground of my adult self.
          When I finished the manuscript, my dad was at my house for a week. I asked him if he’d want to read it, and I hoped, honestly, that he would say “no.” I was most afraid that he would be upset with me, or say that I was wrong in my recollection. We had gotten past most of the hurt of those years and were finally healing the long-time wounds we both suffered. He did want to read it, and he did so while he was at my house in Chicago. Every day, he sat on my couch in the mornings, drinking coffee and reading. By the time his visit was over, he’d finished it.
          When I asked what he thought, he didn’t argue about the details. He didn’t leave offended. He simply said, “Thank you for writing your story. I feel like I know you so much better now.”

Read Angela's short story, "To Whom It May Concern." 

Angela Doll Carlson is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in many publications including Thin Air Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, Rock & Sling and Relief Journal. Her memoir, Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Tradition from Ancient Faith Publishers, was published in 2014. Her latest book is Garden in the East: The Spiritual Life of the Body. Angela currently lives in Chicago, IL with her husband, author David L. Carlson, and their four outrageously spirited, yet remarkably likable children.