• Tracy Slater
  • [Path to Publication] How To Decide How Much to Reveal in Your Memoir
[Path to Publication] How To Decide How Much to Reveal in Your Memoir
Written by
Tracy Slater
February 2015
Written by
Tracy Slater
February 2015

My past few posts have been more about the nuts and bolts of getting ready to publish with one of the so-called “Big Five” publishing houses. This month, as the date draws closer for my memoir’s launch in bookstores, I’m reflecting on one of the earliest decisions I needed to make about putting a true story out for public consumption—decisions we all need to make, regardless of whether we publish independently or commercially.


What to do about the family.


My memoir is much more about my intercultural, international marriage than anything else. My husband approved every scene that involved him or his family before I submitted the final manuscript to my publisher. Or rather, because English isn’t his first language and I speak hardly any Japanese, I read or explained the scenes in English, he listened for about three seconds and then he got tired and waived his hands and said, “Sound fine!” (Now that I think about it, that sounds like most marriages, bilingual or not!)


In any case, my book does have a few scenes about my own family growing up, scenes that helped foreground some of my own choices and beliefs about marriage. Like every family, mine had a few bumps along the way—and like most families, mine wasn’t thrilled about my exposing every inch of those bumps publicly. My case was complicated by the fact that my sister has published quite a bit about my family, most of which dovetails with my own memories but some of which doesn’t.


When I showed the first polished draft of my manuscript to my family, some of them were upset by one of the scenes I included. Then I had a really hard decision to make: do I keep the scene or save my relationships?


I could understand how my family felt. My memoir is snarky in places, especially about myself, but exposing your own foibles—and being in control of how they get exposed—is very different from having someone else represent and then expose them publicly.


Every memoir writer needs to decide what’s most important in revealing information about other people and then be ready to live with the consequences. I also think we need to ask ourselves whether what we are revealing really needs to be included, for the narrative’s sake, or whether we are just brushing up against our feelings that we should be able to tell our stories exactly as we remember them. Of course we should—in a perfect world. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and being justified in telling our truths unfortunately doesn’t always make our relationships immune from the impact.

In the end, I decided that my bonds with my family were more important than the success of my book. I was lucky that my editor at Putnam fully supported me, and she helped me redraft the scene so it remained utterly true to my memory but still worked in the book, supported the general narrative arc, and avoided the part my family didn't want me to air.


I still do believe that section of the book would have been stronger and more memorable with the scene in its original. But I can live with the book how it is. I also decided that, if some people say I’m not a true artist or committed enough to my writing because I didn’t sacrifice everything for it, I’m okay with that too. Not necessarily happy, but okay.


As I said at the beginning of this post, these are choices we all need to make when we write for others to read, regardless of whether we publish independently or commercially. So I’d love to hear how you’ve handled these choices. Have you let all the truth just hang out in your book, or have you couched, deleted, or even bent some of it?


Tracy Slater is an American writer based in Japan. Her memoir The Good Shufu: Finding Love, Self, and Home on the Far Side of the World has been named a Summer 2015 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection and is forthcoming from Penguin Random House’s Putnam imprint in June. Her blog is http://thegoodshufu.wordpress.com, she is on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TheWriterTracySlater, and she is grateful to be part of the She Writes community.

Let's be friends

The Women Behind She Writes

519 articles
12 articles

Featured Members (7)

123 articles
392 articles
54 articles
60 articles

Featured Groups (7)

Trending Articles

  • Angela Lam (Turpin)

    I meant the right agent for me

  • Angela Lam (Turpin)

    Congratulations, Tracy, on finding an agent. I'm hoping someday I will find the right onemail for me.

  • Tracy Slater

    Congratulations again, Angela! I'll look out for your book in October! And I can't imagine doing the negotiations without an agent. I actually got an offer from Putnam before I had an agent b/c, as I wrote about before, my editor at Putnam saw something I wrote elsewhere and invited me to submit a proposal. But before we negotiated, I consulted some writers I knew who had also published traditionally, and everyone said, DO NOT negotiate w/out an agent! And although I love and totally trust my editor, that advice was invaluable, b/c there is so much, as you say, that's important about having someone to go to bat just for you. Anyway, I went about finding an agent (and even got rejected by a few *after* I had the offer--kind of a blow to my self-esteem, but that's writing, right?) and am really glad I found mine!

  • Angela Lam (Turpin)

    Hi Tracy,
    My memoir, Red Eggs and Good Luck, will be published October 6, 2015 by She Writes Press as the result of winning the 2014 Memoir Discovery Contest. I would publish with a traditional press if I had an agent to go to bat for me. Negotiations with the Big Five are not easy when you do not have representation.

  • Tracy Slater

    Hi Angela. Congrats on your book coming out! When will it be published, or is it already out in the world? Happy you found the support you needed without having to sacrifice your story. Wonder how the experience impacted your general view of publishing models. Has this made you feel like you'd never again want to go with a traditional press?

  • Angela Lam (Turpin)

    I had to remove my book from a Big Five publisher because I didn't get the same support as you did and I wanted to be able to keep my relationships with my family intact.  Now that I'm with She Writes Press, I am finally able to tell the truth without jeopardizing my relationships.

  • Tracy Slater

    Joyce, I'm *so" glad you found this useful! And it sounds really smart that you are already preparing for different kinds of reactions. For some strange reason (maybe spaciness??) I was unprepared for how hurt certain family members were at the thought that I had even written down and contemplated making public some of the original "unsanitized" (love this term!) stuff. So I admire your ability to think forward! In any case, wishing you and your sweetie all the very best of luck with your joint project!

  • Tracy Slater

    Mardith, I haven't seen it, so thanks so much for the suggestion! Will look it up. And thanks for your comments re: other things being important. When my Putnam editor assured me, after I changed the scene in question, that no book is worth losing family relationships over, I knew once again I had found the perfect editor for me, and I was so grateful for her understanding and support. And now for yours!

  • Joyce Evans-Campbell

    I know precisely what you mean, but my husband and I didn't ask family to read anything because most of the unsterilized parts are about us only. That doesn't mean family won't be concerned for us or their own feelings. Some will be upset and embarrassed that I married this guy though we've gone through a metamorphosis. In the book's preface, we write that all of our deepest secrets will not be told. We've admitted this to prevent some from surmising "they told everything" unless they don't believe us. (That's on them)  Once they've read what's there, they'll be grateful that we didn't reveal everything. Anything said in our written saga cannot be omitted based on the storyline, though, we did decide what would be too much to tell. Before we publish, we intend to talk with principal relatives about our untold lives, hoping they won't be shocked and distressed. How they react is something we cannot escape. We're preparing for some good, some disappointments in us, and trying to ferret out how to cope. I don't believe every unpleasant or controversial aspect of one's life should be told in a story though I know it's each writer's own decision. I understand your position perfectly in letting relatives read your story. But in our case we'd have to scrap the entire memoir if they had a say. Thanks for sharing for this will aid us in explaining our dilemma when the stuff hits the south.

  • Mardith Louisell

    Wonderful thoughts from both of you re: memoir and family. I love that you talk about other things besides your writing being important. Did you see Sylvie Testud in Fear and Trembling (French). "A Belgian woman looks back on her year at a Japanese corporation in Tokyo in 1990. Born in Japan, living there until age 5, after college graduation, she returns with a one-year contract as an interpreter." As each of you can no doubt imagine, things don't go well. If you haven't seen it, I'm sure it would stimulate.

  • Tracy Slater

    Sharrie, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments about what to lay bare and what to keep reserved in memoir. I'll have to look up Brene Brown--thanks for the tip! And I absolutely love how you describe your relationship with Japan as love/hate. That perfectly captures it for me too! It's both such a fascinating country and such a difficult one to be a foreigner sometimes, that I think most people have at least some of that duality. Thanks again for sharing your experiences and thoughts. Wishing you all the best with your writing!

  • Sherrie McCarthy

    I write travel memoir and there is a large portion of a trip I may never write about because to do so would put serious strain on my relationships with my in laws - if not have me treated like an outcast forever. This is not to say I deny the truth of what happened. I often write about the conflicts that arise with travel companions and what to do (or not to do) about them. But if I stand to seriously hurt myself or a relationship I care about I write the emotional truth of what I learned in that situation rather than the factual events of how I learned it. Protecting those you love is not a lie. Sometimes you can extract the lessons learned and the emotional impact without naming actual names and describing the ugly details.In this case a character is truly a character. I use them to represent some non fictional people in my life, but they are made up for the narrative. I am sure the other side saw it differently anyway, so you are in the end presenting your viewpoint. So long as the essence stays you don't always need to make the other person unhappy with what you write.

    I really loved Brene Brown's Daring Greatly and try to remember some of the things she wrote about vulnerability when I am trying to decide if what I wrote should stay or not.  And you are right, in a perfect world we could all lay out our actual self for better or for worse and we would all learn and grow from them. But we do not live in that world. Yet to twist the truth to fit the world we live in does not work either. So before I write anything for public viewing I write it out for myself and sit with it. I need to know that what I share I have come to terms with it and I want others to know it's ok not to be perfect. At the same time I think it is also ok to protect others and make one person into a couple, or a couple of people into one. Obviously when I write out what was said I am paraphrasing, I cant remember word for word what it was. So the same goes for events that could burn bridges. I am paraphrasing so the truth remains but no one ends up terribly hurt. Or at least not feeling like I made them look stupid in print.

    And with each book and story we grow and learn. And I would far rather be accused of not being fully committed to my writing than to be a lonely writer fully committed to my craft but with everyone afraid to talk to me because of how I will depict them in my next book!

    Looking forward to reading your book when it comes out! I lived in Japan for a year and had a complete love/hate relationship with it. I really want to go back. Hopefully sooner rather than later!