In our conversation back then, I asked Febos how she overcame her fear of hurting her parents by writing about them and about her own darker secrets that might upset them. “I guess the writer in me has more clout than the daughter in me,” she replied. “It wins every fucking time.” Febos later interviewed me, contributed to one of my anthologies, and led a workshop at the coworking space for writers that I operated in Kingston, New York, before the pandemic caused me to shutter it. Throughout all these professional ventures, we stayed in touch and formed a friendship. For a time, when I’d post publicly about my writing fears, she’d email or DM me, reminding me to “Let the writer win, Sari Botton.”
Though I wanted to follow her guidance, I wasn’t so sure. Each time I tried to imagine once again writing with abandon about some of the more painful moments from my childhood (parents’ feelings be damned!), I completely freaked myself out and abandoned my work. I continued to stall on writing my memoir and largely avoided publishing personal essays that might reveal things my parents (and others) would prefer I kept silent. I considered writing under a pseudonym and interviewed other pseudonymous writers about that, but I resented the idea of having to hide myself, especially after decades of working to build a “platform” under my own name.
It was all so frustrating. For years I felt as if I were suspended in amber. But while as a writer I was frozen, as an editor and teacher I was busy encouraging others to be brave in expressing difficult stories that involved other people.
It was in those capacities that my internal shift first began to manifest itself. As more writers and students spoke of how conflicted they were over revealing others’ truths—and as the legal team in one place I worked killed a story about emotional abuse out of a fear that one of the subjects might legitimately sue for either “defamation of character” or “invasion of privacy”—I became determined to help them strike a balance: to both speak out and respect others’ preferences (or demands) to remain anonymous. (And, well, not get sued.)
I started suggesting they seriously blur anyone who might take issue with what they wrote, changing names and other identifying characteristics—although that’s not a bullet-proof approach, especially when you’re writing about parents and others in similarly recognizable positions in your life. (I love the funny way Taffy Brodesser-Akner addresses how tricky this is in the lede of a GQ story about getting high with her mother: “My mother (not her real name) and I get out of the cab at the corner of Kill Me Street and Carjack Avenue, in the Beyond Thunderdome section of south San Francisco.”)
I also started suggesting that, after they got all their frustrations out in early drafts, they extracted any highly charged details that weren’t absolutely necessary for context or for moving the dramatic action forward. I hoped that once they’d told those parts to themselves, they’d find it less objectionable to let them go.
These approaches worked well for many of them, and I was pleased. But I had a hard time taking my own advice. I was still too paralyzed with fear.
For years I felt as if I were suspended in amber.
In 2019, I attended the AWP Conference in Portland, Oregon, and heard Febos speak on a panel about the challenges inherent in writing about people in your life. She confessed to regrets regarding some things she’d written about a particular person in her life.
She also talked about that much-memed Anne Lamott quote, the one burgeoning memoirists rely on to justify writing whatever they want about people they believe have hurt them, and how facile a notion it is: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”
No, Melissa insisted, the business of writing about other people requires much greater thought and care, and it sometimes involves the messy work of sharing with them what you’re planning to publish before you do, with enough time to possibly revise it, depending on their response.
Melissa had clearly changed her mind since we’d spoken all those years ago. Instead of making me feel more limited, hearing her impart this new perspective somehow made me feel liberated. There were ways for me to do this work with greater integrity. It could make it all feel less dangerous—even safe.
Still, the writing was very hard. I continued to stall. The book was supposed to come out a year ago, in the spring of 2021, but I remained too anxious. I felt as if I needed to declaw so much of what I’d written.
And so I did. I put the manuscript through two additional rounds of my own editing—blurring the living daylights out of every single ex-partner and ex-friend; making composites of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and teachers by assigning some of their more regrettable choices to “the adults around me” (I mean, I grew up in the ’70s, when adults were pulling some crazy shit); culling unnecessary details about my parents’ personal lives.
I was about to give my book the second of these serious haircuts when an assuring piece of mail arrived: a galley of Febos’s Body Work. In a chapter called “A Big Shitty Party,” she expounds on the kernels she offered at AWP in 2019. The chapter addresses the great power a memoirist has, a power much greater than that of her subjects, and the responsibility that comes with it. (It was a special thrill to see her refer to our conversations about “letting the writer win.”)
I felt held by the book. I kept it by my side as I put the manuscript through its second deep scrub, with benevolence in mind. And I got the job done.
When I received my father’s email, I knew I had succeeded. I’d produced a memoir that reveals and scrutinizes me more than anyone else—something I’d heard teachers and mentors advise many times throughout my career but which I previously struggled to master. Now it tells my story, warts and all, in a way that my family can get behind. In his email, my father asked for only one change: I’d gotten wrong the age his mother was when she died. (He also accidentally cc’d his friend Frank on that email; I can only hope Frank was as moved as I was.)
It turns out my mom loves the book, too, as does my hilarious sister, who texted, “Omg, your book is so funny!” (Big score.) It’s all such an enormous weight off my shoulders. To think that I’ve been putting this off for so long.
Now that I’ve cracked the code on writing candidly about myself with an eye toward minimizing harm to loved ones, I look forward to guiding more of my students and the writers I edit in this direction. It can be done, people. I’m living proof.
Sari Botton is the author of the memoir in essays, And You May Find Yourself...Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gen-X Weirdo. She is a contributing editor at Catapult, and the former Essays Editor for Longreads. She edited the bestselling anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NewYork and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York. She teaches creative nonfiction at Catapult, Bay Path University and Kingston Writers' Studio. She publishes Oldster Magazine, Memoir Monday, and Adventures in Journalism.