Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Secret is in the Telling

Several months ago, I started writing a memoir--it was one of those things that you start not actually believing you will ever finish. Well I am now 220 pages--nearly 80,000 words--into it, and it looks like this is something that I will finish, and that I hope to publish. It describes my journey as a conflicted gay BYU student, beginning with my freshman year and my efforts to use therapy and prayer to become straight. The novel goes on to recount my mission and how it changed me and enabled me to come out of the closet soon after, dating Michael in secret, some major problems we had to iron out in our relationship and how they were mirrored in the battle for Proposition 8 that momentarily consumed BYU, and a period following prop 8 where things are resolved with Michael and where I come to terms with who I am and what my future is.

I think my story is interesting and I think it is relevant, so I'm hoping I can find a publisher who agrees. In the mean time, I have to finish it. I'll be looking for one or two people to read a draft and help me edit it, but probably not for another month. And preferably I'd like someone who is outside of the Mormon community so I can have some help determining whether or not certain parts of my story are interesting or relevant outside of the bubble I grew up in.

The hardest part about writing my memoir, actually, has been determining which experiences to share and how to share them. I have had to be honest, which means exposing my own flaws and writing about events that are embarrassing or that I regret. While I have not discussed every regretted experience, I have tried to disclose as much as possible because I do believe my experiences can help others. I hope the details of my story, personal though they may be, can transcend my life situation and benefit others dealing with their own challenges.

It’s one thing to expose ones own flaws; it’s another thing to expose someone else’s. That’s part of what makes writing a memoir about recent history so difficult. How do I write about the married BYU faculty member who secretly dates men without destroying his career and family? How do I write about the friend who is hiding in the closet because his grandfather is one of the Apostles, and one who is particularly vocal against homosexuality? On the other hand, how do I omit those kinds of details when they affect me and shape my community? If I change the details to protect the identity of the individual, then the story becomes as much fiction as truth. If I am asking my audience to rethink the way they look at BYU or at homosexuality, don’t I owe them the honest truth? Only by coming out of the closet and disclosing our secrets can we expect things to change, but can I disclose secrets that aren’t mine to disclose?

The ethics get even more confusing when the details affect people I still have relationships with. If someone in my family has reacted unfavorably to my sexual orientation, it reveals a lot about how my loved one’s religion and personal bias affects me. But if I share the experience, am I hurting my chances that this family member will come around and accept me in the future? Moreover, if I convey the damage of religious and personal prejudice through another person or scenario more distant than my family, will the reader still understand how deeply I was hurt?

What about experiences that portray the LDS Church in a negative light? When Reed Cowan’s documentary 8: The Mormon Proposition was released, it damaged his relationship with his family. He intended to reveal the truth about LDS involvement and motivation behind proposition 8, but his family felt hurt because they viewed the film as an affront to something sacred to them. My story is important to me, and it is important that I share my story so that others can make better decisions about their own lives, how they treat loved ones, and the policies that run their organizations. But no matter how important that message is to me, it is not more important than the relationship I have with my family. I would never do anything to intentionally hurt them, and I would never seek to profane things that are sacred to them or make light of things that are personal to them.

Choosing what to include in this memoir was really choosing which story to tell. In the end, this story is not about my relationship with my parents. It is not about my relationship with my siblings. It is not about my relationship with Mormonism, either. While all of those stories are significant, this is not the venue for those stories. Instead, this memoir is about my relationship with Brigham Young University. It is also about my inner struggles and the decisions I made while I was at Brigham Young University that have brought me to where I am today.

Ultimately, I have done my best to decide which experiences should be left out and which experiences could be appropriately included to tell that story. I have also changed some significant details about people, places, and events to protect the identity of the individuals involved. In each case, I have been as accurate as possible in conveying the significance of the character or event and how it influenced me. So we'll see where this whole thing goes. I can only hope it has a positive influence on people.


Original Mohomie said...

I think it's respectable (and important) that you're even regarding those questions and ethical dilemmas. I've thought of the same things even though I'm not writing a book. I think if you maintain a tone of respect for individuals and reflect true understanding of where opponents are coming from (showing a real effort on your part to illustrate rather than demonize), it usually helps ease offense, because it becomes more clear that you're not bent on destruction but hoping to help or build understanding. Changing names and disguising times and locations is probably helpful too, as is talking to those you're most concerned about and asking them what would ease, if not eliminate, their discomfort. But in the end, I think if you've been respectful and careful in your treatment, they have a responsibility to "get over it" and deal with the fact that their acts, not just yours of writing a book, truly have never been isolated and without ripples...y'know?

MoHoHawaii said...

I talked to a friend of mine who is a professional writer about your manuscript. She told me that you could either have it professionally reviewed or take it to a workshop.

She could give you the name of another writer she knows who is qualified to do the review for you, but the price is probably beyond your budget (something like $2500 for a manuscript of this length).

Writers workshops (like the ones offered here) are a really great way to get the feedback you need, and these are either free or very inexpensive.

(I would be potentially interested in reading your manuscript out of personal interest, but I'm from an LDS background.)

Lisa said...

Remember when we talked about your author's note? I think you just found it.

El Genio said...

This sounds like a really, really interesting read. I wish I had more experience or insider connections to the publishing industry so I could help you get it out there.

D-Train said...

I am interested to read about your experiences. While I was at BYU, I was completely closeted (even to myself) and though I definitely hated BYU more than most people can imagine, it was hard at the time to draw the correlation between my sexual orientation and my extreme disliking with that school.

Since graduating and moving away, I literally sometimes forget I ever went there, and the whole four years I spent in Provo and two in Texas on my mission just seems like a blur and a bad dream at this point.

The only memory I really have about it is the fear I felt when Soulforce came to BYU in 2005 for the first time, and how afraid I was that I would end up leaving the the LDS religion. It is amazing what fear will make you do.

Daniel said...

O-mo, Thanks.

MoHo-H, Thanks. I think you are removed enough from my specific life situations that I may still ask you to review the manuscript in a few weeks when it is ready. I also really like the idea of writers workshops.

Lisa, this manuscript is dedicated to you. And actually, this blog post was derived from the authors note.

Genio, Thanks. My fiancée is in publishing has some connections that will hopefully help me find an agent. Right now I'm just worried about getting it ready for an agent. I am a writer by passion, not by trade.

D-train, thanks. :)

Matt said...

I'd be willing to review it, if you're still looking for people.

Hope everything's good for you guys.