Man in yellow hat covering his hands in shame.

Shame: The # 1 Block to Authentic Character Development

Over the weekend, I thought a lot about shame.

For many years, it was my copilot. Shame drove me to hide my feelings, strive for perfection, and work harder than anyone else.

Looking back, shame was one of the reasons I studied fiction. Hiding behind its veil, I believed I could write about my life without repercussions. But the work fell flat—not because you can’t write about yourself or get to the truth through fiction, but because the veil didn’t eradicate the shame that prevented me from doing so.

When I discovered creative nonfiction, that changed.

But finding the right genre isn’t enough.

On Sunday morning, I read Brooke Warner’s response to the New York Times article about Jill Ciment’s new memoir, Consent. It’s a reconsideration of her first memoir, Half a Life, a tale about her marriage to the artist Arnold Mesches.

Their relationship started when Jill was seventeen and Arnold forty-seven.

In Half a Life, she describes herself as the instigator of their first kiss, which occurred while Arnold was her instructor.

Reflecting on her memoir in the aftermath of his death and the #MeToo Movement, she recognizes that truth is as murky as the facts she omitted from her first book.

A few things led to Jill’s omissions and reconsiderations.

Arnold was her first reader. This impacted her ability to be completely honest.

She didn’t want to think of herself as prey.

The first is why memoir instructors suggest students write early drafts as if no one will ever read them, and to only seek feedback from characters just before publication.

I don’t know Jill, and I don’t want to speak for her, but I want to speak to the need to be seen a certain way.

Truth is a layered thing, and while we’ll never hit bottom and reach capital T Truth, it’s our duty to plumb the depths of our experiences and our motivations.

That means peering into the shadows we’ve long avoided and spending time with what we see. For some, it’s seeing our agency in situations where we only saw powerlessness. For others, it’s seeing how powerless we really were.

Both can cause us to question our self-worth or cut into old wounds we’d bandaged over but never fully healed.

So how do you work with the shame that inhibits this process?

  • Create a clear picture of who you are now, including your positive attributes and strengths. This is the person writing your story.
  • Cultivate curiosity about the old version of you—the character from the past you’re writing about. As you do this, remind yourself that you are not that person anymore.
  • Allow time and space to feel any emotions that come up. Expressing them is what makes you whole.
  • Be patient with yourself and the process.

If you’re feeling stuck in your shame, try these writing exercises:

  • Write a letter to the character you were about how you’ve changed.
  • Write the same scene from the perspective of a beloved friend or pet. Note what they see.

You can also check out the post I published last week for Jane Friedman, “The Missing Link in Memoir Character Development.”

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