Full Disclosure: Meghan J. Ward on Marriage, Motherhood, and Weighing the Truth in Memoir
“How do I honor, or even reclaim, my voice in this story without compromising my relationship with my loved ones?”
A canopy of golden leaves shimmered overhead as a cool autumn breeze swept through the park. Every few moments, leaves surrendered their final pulse of life, let go, then swirled and fluttered to the browning grasses that belted the rocky shoreline of Calgary’s Bow River. I found a spot by the river’s edge to stand in the sunlight. Nearby, my youngest child threw pebbles into the water while her older sister looked for skipping stones.
My husband, Paul, was hard at work building a large cairn, an unlikely tower of mismatched rocks. Logic would dictate one should place the largest stones at the bottom and the smallest at the top. But I noticed he’d built his base and then inverted the pattern.
“The real challenge,” he said, “is to find the center of gravity and try to balance a larger stone on top of a small one.”
He held a large flat stone over a circular one the size of a golf ball. With eyes focused, he carefully set it down at the top of his tower. The collapse happened in a matter of milliseconds, with the flat stone falling first, scattering the base and the stability it had created for everything built upon it.
As writers we find ourselves in an evolving relationship with our own stories. I didn’t set off to write a memoir, certainly not to write about intimate moments of my young family’s life. Yet, often a book takes on a life of its own. I had planned to write about my trips around the globe, solo hiking a volcano in Costa Rica, ski touring in the Arctic, and bringing my young children to places like New Zealand, Easter Island, and Malta. But, in the end, these adventures became the backdrop of an unexpected, parallel journey, one in which I rediscovered myself amidst the entanglements of marriage and motherhood.
The memoir-writing process was safe, at first. I tinkered with the structure and chapter outline, the benign aspects of the book that could be dealt with at arm’s length. With earnestness I wrote about our world travels, utilizing the tools I’d developed as a travel writer to immerse readers in a sense of place. But when it came time to get into the heart of the content, to chronicle the joys, trials, gifts, and resentments that accompany some of life’s most formative milestones, I was in uncharted terrain.
I had no bearings when it came to writing about finding one’s life partner, the transition to parenthood, and the juggling act of being a working mother and a wife to an adventure photographer. I had few examples of how these milestones play out while you’re traveling to remote corners of the globe or hiking into the backcountry with a baby strapped to your chest.I didn’t set off to write a memoir, certainly not to write about intimate moments of my young family’s life. Yet, often a book takes on a life of its own.
I have yet to meet another mother who didn’t struggle, to some degree, with her own identity amidst the plentiful and at times painful demands of motherhood. No marriage is immune from challenges. Yet not every mother has signed a book contract. Not every wife or partner has agreed to disclose their true feelings about how one’s identity shifts within their unification with another.
“True” is a complex word. I had a choice, of course, of how deep I went with my truth. I wanted to be honest, but not too honest. Choosing an appropriate degree of vulnerability—one that felt comfortable to me and would not negatively impact my family—felt delicate, as though the whole process balanced on a precarious point of contact.
As an avid reader of memoir, I developed an awareness that some writers dip their toes in the waters of vulnerability; others dive in head-first. When a writer is clearly holding back I feel that I’m missing out on something. At the other end of the spectrum, full disclosure can make me feel uncomfortable.
Is there a goldilocks zone in memoir writing, I wonder—that point at which we trust our readers will connect with our words and withstand the weight of truth and vulnerability we’ve allowed for ourselves?
When it became unavoidable that I’d need to write my memoir’s more vulnerable passages, I booked a hotel room and locked myself away for several days. I needed to free myself of my responsibilities at home to figure out how I would write the book’s most sensitive scenes: the whirlwind that is falling in love with an intrepid adventurer and creative spirit; the loss of identity as I adapted to motherhood; the exasperating, life-sucking moments that transpire during weeks of solo parenting while my husband travels the globe; and the agonizing feelings of loneliness—what I ended up calling a “switch-on, switch-off” level of independence I learned to adopt when my husband and I were living parallel lives.
I remember opening my laptop on the hotel room table and asking: How do I honor, or even reclaim, my voice in this story without compromising my relationship with my loved ones? Unflinching honesty would require me to write about the good, the bad, and the ugly, such as the arduous early years of raising a spirited child and squabbles with my husband when I’d express my frustration over his unrelenting pace of life. It would mean disclosing my feelings and uncertainty about moments when our choices as parents weren’t so cut and dried. Traveling to remote places like French Polynesia, where we feared our one-year-old had suffered a head injury, meant occasionally we found ourselves choosing the lesser of two evils, trusting we’d all come out unscathed.Is there a goldilocks zone in memoir writing, I wonder—that point at which we trust our readers will connect with our words and withstand the weight of truth and vulnerability we’ve allowed for ourselves?
As I wrote, I asked what the consequences might be of taking each truth, each feeling, to a deeper level. What was the risk I was taking in describing these memories as I lived them? How did they serve the story and the reader’s journey?
I worked so intensely I hadn’t noticed the sun had gone down. The only light that remained was my laptop screen illuminating my face. There in that hotel room, I had toiled with sentences and sweat over my word selection. I carefully omitted thoughts and feelings when I decided the risk of expressing them was too high. And something unexpected happened in the process.
By mining in that darkness, I had found gold. By putting my truth under the microscope—weighing the consequences of my uttering it—I actually came to reassess my interpretation of events, my assumptions, and my voiced and unvoiced expectations. I let go of things I once thought to be true and reflected joyfully on the ways my family had grown closer as we all grew older. I uncovered parts of myself I’d said goodbye to ages ago or didn’t even know were missing. I acknowledged how those situations that challenged my identity had in fact shaped me into something wonderfully, refreshingly, new.
By choosing which truth I would tell the world, I landed on a truth that resonated with the person I am today. Writing about the past afforded me the opportunity to inhabit it with the perspective of someone who knew how those sagas ended, what I learned by living them.
Writing one’s story can be a gamble, but it can also be a gift. I decided it would be a gift to my family. In the end, I wrote the book for my children, so that one day they might come to understand me in ways I could not explain when they were young.
I couldn’t control the reactions of my readers or loved ones when they opened the book. But I could do my utmost to craft the text, one agonizing keystroke at a time, so that I could take them to that edge without pushing them over it. Eventually, I found the sweet spot, at least the point that felt remotely balanced, and then did something that every memoirist must when unleashing a book into the world: let go and trust.
When Paul’s tower fell onto the riverbank, his shoulders slumped and he sighed. Then he went back to work, selecting his stones and rebuilding a tower once more. My daughters took notice and joined in as he restarted the process. Soon all three stood around a tower as tall as my four-year-old.
I realized then it’s not the end of the world if the tower falls. The alternative is to write a story without being vulnerable, without taking any risks, and thus jeopardizing the opportunity to connect with others.
Looking at a pile of rubble, we might feel that we failed in our efforts to find equilibrium. But the stones are not lost, they are simply scattered amongst others. Our readers, our loved ones, can use them to create something altogether new. To tell a different story. And perhaps in the wake of our vulnerability, they’ll find the courage to be vulnerable, too.
From Lights to Guide Me Home by Meghan J. Ward, available from Rocky Mountain Books