Until this point in time I’ve identified as a fiction writer, and whether I had permission to write something was a question that squirreled around in my own head. But when I was wrapping up the edits to my first memoir, The Year of the Horses, published by Tin House in May, I found myself standing on a publishing precipice. The people in my memoir were not characters—they were real, nearly all of them alive, and many of them relatives. When I’d been tinkering with my first drafts, the story was very much my own: my truth, my life. But a curious thing happens when you approach the delivery date for a memoir manuscript. The book starts to twist away from you, in search of sunlight and readers. In dressing up a memoir to meet the wider world, it becomes crystal clear that the people you have zippered up inside it matter quite a lot. Right about the time when I typed THE END on page 230, I decided that my book couldn’t head out into the world without the people in it feeling—if not excited, exactly—a notch above resigned. But how do you break the ice on an entire continent of emotions? How do you prepare your own family to receive an early version of a story in which they are the lead characters?
“Give it to your parents in galley form,” suggested the writer Dani Shapiro, who—having been down the memoirist road herself many times—was kind enough to advise me on this high-stakes game of show-and-tell. “Don’t send it as a Word doc. The closer the book looks to the real thing, the less likely your relatives are to ask for massive changes.”
While this advice made total sense to me, it didn’t work in terms of my publishing timeline. “Dani’s right,” said my editor at Tin House, Masie Cochran. “But ultimately your readers will have changes, and if you wait until the galley, you won’t have enough time to implement them. Plus,” she added, “they might suggest edits that you actually want to make.”
I came up with a memoir-sharing game plan. I’d ship a bound manuscript to my mother in Florida first, the most sensitive person in my family and the one who gets the most airtime in my book. Then I’d send a PDF to my half sister who’s currently living overseas to temperature-check how her mother would receive it. If Ashley thought it safe to proceed, I’d hand over a bound manuscript to my stepmother during her annual pilgrimage north to Connecticut from Chattanooga, which she could then share with my father and siblings in Tennessee on her return. And then I’d e-mail PDFs to my therapist, my polo coach, and my polo teammates, who are also in the book.
As all plans do, this one had to shift the minute it was implemented. The question of how my family would react to my memoir was one I’d been discussing with this same therapist who warned me not to decide ahead of time what my loved ones would think of my writing. This advice proved sound, because instead of my mother being hurt by my book (as I had preemptively decided she would be), she loved it more than any of my published work to date. She also told me that I’d gotten quite a few things wrong. When I was ready, could we talk through what she remembered, versus how I wrote it?
In the game of genetics, I could have ended up with my mother’s propensity for sharing, generosity, and a general willingness to put herself third. I didn’t. I inherited my father’s traits of secrecy and territorialism, which have served me well when it comes to overriding the natural urge to share a horrible draft of something new with a beta reader. As a writer I’ve leaned into this guardedness and have long kept my fiction close to my chest.
But memoir is different. The proof that it is different comes on the first page of most memoirs printed in America today, where an author’s note sits as a declaimer and defense against potential criticisms of falsification. Most of these notes stipulate that the book in question represents the author’s truest version of whatever they are telling and that they’ve tried to re-create events and conversations exactly as they happened, allowing for the forces of subjectivity and time. My author’s note in The Year of the Horses isn’t any different. What was different is that I elected to let the people in the book tell me what they thought of it, and I left myself enough room in the publishing timeline to consider changing things if it turned out I’d got something wrong.
“You have yourself missing that dinner before Brendan left with your high school boyfriend, but weren’t you with Leo?” went one such discussion with my mother, who remembered an important meal honoring my brother, Brendan, on the eve of his departure to a special high school for students with learning disabilities, for which I’d been four hours late. I had recalled missing that dinner because I’d got lost trying to get home to Connecticut after a heady weekend with my long-distance high school boyfriend, Sam. That missed dinner had happened, as had the driving error as I had remembered causing it: On the way back from Middlebury, Vermont, I’d headed toward New Milford, Pennsylvania, instead of New Milford, Connecticut. Here’s the crazy thing, though. I’d made that exact same geographical mistake again many years later, on a trip back from the Adirondacks with my then-fiancé, Leo. That time I’d missed an even more momentous event: the departure of my brother for college. This conversation with my mother supported a truth at the heart of my memoir, which is the fact that I was a pretty absent sister to my brother when he was younger, always hiding behind romantic or academic obligations to avoid reckoning with the medical and emotional upheavals in his life.
My relationship with my brother is convoluted and complicated, and I need more than the runway of a memoir to figure it out, but what I can say is that my younger brother has developmental issues and can’t competently read or write, which made the act of asking him for permission about a book he wouldn’t read fraught. While I was growing up, my father was embarrassed by my brother’s learning and health issues, my mother, emboldened: She dedicated her thirties and forties to finding “solutions” for Brendan in therapy, medication, and education, while my dad went to work trusting that my mom would use some of his paycheck to figure it all out. As for me, I opted for self-reliance and academic overperformance, which (1) made my father proud and (2) gave my mother more time to take care of Brendan, killing two birds with one stone. Even though it seemed like a little detail at the time, my mother’s comment that I’d got the New Milford dinner details wrong pushed me to take myself to task on the page for choosing denial in the face of Brendan’s many challenges, as my father had. (With Brendan’s reading issues, he chose to listen to the audiobook after my memoir is published and is trusting the opinions of our other family members that I’ve portrayed him—and our relationship—honestly and fairly.)
While I was sitting with these emotional discoveries, my fact-checking conversations with my mother continued to mine gold. Another find came a few weeks after the New Milford mix-up when my mom—who by this point had taken on the role of memory detective—pointed out that I had her impulsively purchasing a Harley-Davidson motorcycle as a kind of midlife-crisis toy after my father divorced her in chapter 14. “Actually, I’d always loved motorcycles,” she corrected. “My high school sweetheart had one; we used to ride around on that thing all the time. I’d always wanted to have my own motorcycle license. So after the divorce, as a present to myself, I decided to do it.” When I was a teenager and this Harley arrived, I’d had strong feelings about my parents’ divorce. My mother hadn’t wanted me to hate my father, so she had protected me from knowing the real reason he’d divorced her, which left me thinking (assuming?) that the divorce had been her fault. While it takes two people to have a marriage dissolve, there had also been a newer, younger woman who was a factor in my parents’ unraveling. One by-product of going through my memoir chapter by chapter with my mother was that I wanted to crawl back into her womb so I could start my life over and be a nicer, kinder, and more compassionate daughter the second time around.
The course corrections with my patriline proved to be more humorous. Regarding a portrait of me on a rocking horse that is a cornerstone of the book, I discovered that none of my three half-siblings knew that the picture—which hangs in my father’s dining room, where two of them still lived during my fact-checking—was of me. “I thought that was just some random olden-day person,” my half brother Blake said, pointing out that there was an old painting of two brothers hung on the same wall and that those people weren’t in our family, so he assumed the same of the brunette on the rocking horse. My father, when I asked him what he’d thought about the painting after my mother presented it to him on my fifth birthday, said that he’d always wanted that painting and resented my mother for getting it in the divorce. I reminded him that he had it—it was in his dining room. “Oh, right,” he responded in a text, because my father does not do voice calls. “I wanted the rocking horse. But instead I got the picture.”
So what do you do with that?
No, really: Logistically and artistically, what do you do when your version of events doesn’t square up with your relatives’ account, specifically when it comes to a memoir that is slated to be published? I was able to solve this thanks to the structure of my memoir, which pivots between two time lines: one when I am thirty-seven years old, when the main action takes place, and my nine-year-old self, when my parents got divorced and my brother started manifesting the health issues that would plague him throughout his youth. When I reread my memoir armed with my loved ones’ feedback, I decided that everything I’d thought as a young person would stand. After all, I remembered these moments as I remembered them; I had felt sad because I was sad. The fact that I didn’t have all the facts behind the events that had destabilized me as a child didn’t mean I hadn’t been.
But the adult time line, I could do better. I decided to go back to the Word doc and layer in my family’s perspective on top of my own. Regarding the dustup about this rocking-horse portrait, I included what I remembered about that painting’s origin story, and then I included everyone else’s version, which ultimately made for a richer, funnier chapter that underscores a claim I make throughout the book that we Maums are terrible at communicating. Regarding my mother and her Harley I have two reflections on that incident. One, in chapter 14, recalls the purchase of that Harley as I remembered it: My mom was going through a crisis of identity and was in the middle of an emotional breakdown. And then, in chapter 22, I revisit that same anecdote through my mother’s perspective, showing her as an adult woman reclaiming the passions of her youth, which—cruel fate!—is what my book is about.
Perhaps my memoir is but a protracted author’s note: a testament to the fact that family is complicated, and memory is even more so. When I think back to how I expected the conversations about the book’s content to go when I shared the manuscript with my family, I envisioned only one scenario: my defensiveness, their hurt. This did not come to pass. Instead, the “fact-checking” period with my family was a bonding experience that led to improvement in my craft. Not every writer could undertake this process in a manner that feels empowering, helpful, or even safe. Lots of memoirists are writing about people whom it would be traumatic or dangerous to get back in touch with, or they are writing about people who are dead, or they’re writing about people they don’t feel compelled to share prepublication material with because they don’t play a significant role in the manuscript, or because they don’t feel they owe the person in question the courtesy of a heads-up.
I should note here that my memoir wasn’t slated for legal review by my publisher because it didn’t carry a strong case for defamation of character. Beyond the fact-checking requested by my copy editor, the decision to share my material with my “characters” was my initiative. I wouldn’t feel comfortable advising writers engaged in the legal fact-checking that some publishers require, but I do think I can speak to writers grappling with how, when, and if they should share their memoir with the people in it.
For characters whose appearance was important to a scene or chapter, I shared enough of an excerpt for them to be comfortable with how their section landed. For my reoccurring characters, I handed over the whole book. I gave my readers hard deadlines for feedback and requested we discuss their thoughts over the phone because I knew I’d be able to better gauge their level of comfort with the material if I could hear their voice. Something else I did was change my husband’s and daughter’s names in my manuscript—a superfluous act, perhaps, because it isn’t particularly hard to uncover the truth. But it was only through fictionalizing the names of the people I most love that I was able to access the truths I wanted to tell about us as a family. There’s also the question of consent. My eight-year-old daughter isn’t old enough to consent to having her real name used in a book about her even younger self. As for my husband, whose name I’ve also changed in this article, his agreeing to marry a writer isn’t synonymous with my getting to write whatever I want about him in a public format.
Ultimately what you decide to share of your memoir is a personal decision that will have a lot to do with the content and context of your life and book. You must take your own safety and mental health into account and, in some cases, your legal interests, too. Your agent and editor will hopefully guide you on your fact-checking path, but there’s also an abundance of support and best practices available through private memoirist groups on social media. If you do decide to share your memoir with any high-stakes readers, I hope your bravery pays off. While I once feared that sharing early material with loved ones would undermine my identity (or even authority) as a writer, I now fear what I would have published if I hadn’t sought their feedback. My memoir is stronger, funnier, and truer for my family’s input, and in this way, I feel like I am publishing an emotional inheritance, not just a book.
Courtney Maum is the author of five books, including Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book (Catapult, 2020) and the memoir The Year of the Horses, published by Tin House in May. A writing coach and educator, she helps people hold on to the joy of art making in a culture obsessed with turning artists into brands. You can sign up for her free newsletter at courtneymaum.com.