Two days ago a series of tornadoes churned through the Fort Worth suburb where my family lived for the six years I write about in The Fifth Season.
When we moved to North Texas as an extended family in 2003, we saw prominent tornado damage in downtown Forth Worth—two vacant towers standing against the Fort Worth skyline, condemned, with plywood for windows. The tornadoes had hit three years before our move to Texas, but asbestos insulation prevented safe demolition of those downtown skyscrapers, and the lack of a buyer willing to renovate meant that the city could neither tear down nor rebuild.
Now, three years after our departure, destructive tornadoes have returned to Dallas-Fort Worth.
The sets of twisters bookend our years in Forth Worth, sort of, if you don't count the three years on either end of the timeline. Of course it would be more dramatic and striking, more literary perhaps, if we had moved to Fort Worth the very night a tornado slammed downtown, but if I wrote that story I would be writing fiction. As I seek to make life into literature, I sometimes have to toss out what seems like a good idea when the connections between fact and fancy are too loose.
This week I’ve been doing the kind of fact checking that makes me feel most vulnerable. Documenting tornado damage is easy compared to exposing what I’ve written to the eyes of those I’ve written about. I’m not talking about the key players in the book—my husband, my daughters, my in-laws. They have already seen the writing and given their blessing. For me, the harder part is sharing the writing with those tertiary characters in the book who are certainly not tertiary in my life. People who will read the book and who might be shocked at what I’ve written about them—especially if I’ve gotten the details wrong. So a few days ago I took some deep, cleansing breaths before cutting and pasting passages from the manuscript to my Aunt Lydia and to friends Diana, Troy, and Laurie. I called my mother and read passages over the phone. I waited to hear back from my aunt, my college friends, my former boss.
This is more scary than sending to an editor. I’ve been told that my writing, above all, is honest—sometimes painfully so. It’s true that I’m not afraid to expose the ugliness of my thoughts. Strangers can read my heart and I’m fine with it—but what if the reader is also the person on the page?
My friends responded quickly—some with corrections, some with added detail, none with offense—and all gave their blessing. In creating a memoir, there is a time to write freely with no thought of audience. There’s a time to shape memory into literature, to edit and check facts, to toss out what doesn’t work, what’s overblown or misremembered. And, finally, there’s a time—before publication—to unveil the work to those who may feel just as exposed and vulnerable as the author. There’s a time to ask permission and blessing, a time to love, a time to seek peace.