I’ve been writing an autobiographical young adult book about the year surrounding my dad’s death. I’ve come to find that the most difficult parts to write aren’t the sections about his death and funeral. Those are scenes that I’ve replayed in my mind so often that they come easily. They may be emotionally challenging, but they were the motivation behind writing the book in the first place and the vivid memories are a welcome relief compared to struggling to remember every detail of my twelve year old life before my dad’s death.
Writing about myself unfavorably isn’t the hardest part either. While it hurts my heart that I mistreated my dad, mom and those around me, it’s a part of my identity that I’ve learned to live with. I don’t particularly enjoy how cruel I was, but I’ve made peace with that version of myself. Very few people are the best versions of themselves in middle school. I just had the unfortunate timing of also having my dad die unexpectedly before I could reform myself. I spent so many years trying to forgive myself for my actions and harsh words but recently realized that I don’t have to. Despite my Catholic upbringing, I don’t think everything has to be forgivable. I think it’s okay to not forgive yourself for something, as long as you’ve made peace with your decision. I tried so hard to forgive myself for being mean to my dad, but at the end of the day, my actions towards him still go against my moral code. I was unable to move on because I thought this forgiveness piece was such a crucial part of the puzzle. Instead, I decided to still recognize my actions as mean and wrong, and resent that version of myself for acting that way, but that it didn’t mean I was a harsh or cruel person. It meant that I was flawed, like everyone around me. By not forgiving myself, I’m able to work each day to be a little less flawed in the way I treat the people I love.
So, as someone who considers herself very self-aware, exposing the worst parts of myself isn’t the hardest part of this story.
It’s telling the story of the villains at that point in my life.
Last night I finished a section about my middle school cheerleading coach. To put it lightly, she screwed us over. The night before I started 8th grade at a new school, she shattered my little world. It is a crucial part of my story and it’s impossible, and untrue, to put her in a good light or justify her actions as anything but selfish. Writing the story was cathartic. I texted my best friend since childhood after I finished about how good it felt to tell my side of the story as an adult. To recognize her manipulation and selfishness. To feel like I’m serving her justice.
But a few minutes after finishing, her section started to feel sour in my stomach. While I did nothing but state facts, and will be concealing her identity, she’s still human and I’m going to publish something unfavorable about her. In the off chance she picks up the book, she will know it’s about her. Everyone close to me and everyone who cheered for her will know it’s about her. While I don’t think that she deserves my protection, and while I know she knows where she stands in my opinion, it’s still hard to write unfavorably about anyone. I don’t enjoy gossip and try not to talk shit about anyone unless it’s really, really justified. And while I know this is justified, there’s something different about such a public display of betrayal.
That’s the hardest part of writing a non-fiction book. I can write about my mistakes all day and night, but writing about someone who wronged me is tough. But it’s a necessary part of the story. My job to write as truthful of a story as possible, and the truth is that not everyone was their best self. Words from my grandmother ring in my head: “Never write anything that someone can use as a testament against your character.” I apply that to actions too. We’re responsible for our actions and if we wronged someone, then they have the right to speak their truth and testify against us. I know if someone wrote unfavorably about me, it wouldn’t be easy to swallow, but if it was truthful then I couldn’t be angry at anyone but myself. I just am not sure she’s as self-aware.
Part of me wants to say “Screw it! Who cares what she thinks? You spent so many years seeking her approval, why are you still doing it?” but it’s easier said than done. I know that writing my story means that I’ll inevitably offend others. I already have an email composed to a friend about how I’m sorry for what I thought of her in 7th grade. I wrote a section of my book where I peeked into my judgmental, jealous twelve year old brain, and I know she thought we were good friends at the time, so I want to apologize to her before she reads the book herself. While I don’t care much about what people think of me, I care deeply about how people are impacted by my words.
But I need to step out of my brain, and into the brains of those who offer me advice. She hurt me many times, why care about hurting her through telling the truth? Make sure the story is as true as you can make it so she can’t be offended by anything other than her own actions and the implications they had on my life. Writing your story will always mean that someone is going to be offended. I’m not doing anything but holding up a mirror. I’m doing my best to protect her identity, and the only people who will know that it was her are the people who were also impacted by her actions.
It’s much easier to write villains in fiction.