I just spent the last 24-hours practically sick to my stomach, from sheer terror of the potential power of what I had written.

I just spent the last 24-hours practically sick to my stomach, from sheer terror of the potential power of what I had written.

Let me explain. I recently had a memoir accepted by a magazine. It's about my growing up years in New Canaan, Connecticut. I spent about a year polishing that piece, making sure everything I wanted to say needed to be said and trying to say it as well as I could. I often discussed my work with one sister with whom I share literary interests. She also happens to figure strongly in the piece I wrote—as does every member of my family.

As it turns out, I was pleased with this particular memoir, satisfied that I'd been true to my recollections of the time and place I wanted to capture, and feeling as well as I could about the people about whom I'd written, having taken extra care in the telling of my story about imperfect lives—as all of ours are—that I had in my approach to sharing about them, honored everybody—both as a storyteller and a human being.

This is not an easy task. As a storyteller, the impulse toward hyperbole arises. You think it might make for a better story. So does the impulse for vengeance and betrayal. It's unfortunate, but it's these feelings that arise first before, say, the desire to express love to somebody via your craft. But what is the work for, the attempt at art, if not to make others feel better about themselves and their lives, and, if not that, to have them question those lives in a way that might lead them to a better understanding or maturity? The point is, I worked hard at the intention as well as the craft of this story and in the end felt a sense of accomplishment, even confidence, until, well, it was accepted for publication.

The mere thought that others might see what I had written about my life, about theirs, sent me into a delirium of fear. After informing certain members of my family that a work about them would appear online, there was a pall in our communication. I felt I should repeat: A memoir, not an exposé. But the chill pervaded.

The sister with whom I had previously shared joyful news about my literary progress suddenly turned cold and untrusting. I began to seriously wonder if I had committed some travesty of confidence. I even considered pulling the piece, just to allay her nerves.

I had done this before. Years ago, I submitted five chapters to a publisher concerning a different phase of my life. The publisher not only wrote back asking for more, but called. I stammered and stuttered, "You mean, er, you want more?"

"Yes," she paused, rather shocked that I would wonder. "Yes, we do."

But I could not, would not deliver. I was terrified about whether what I had to say about others would come back to haunt me. I had visions of being taken to court so many times, it would become my new job. I felt bound up, not freed to speak my truth. So, I said, no. No, thank you. No.

I've often wondered since then what it is that makes one feel free to speak one's truth, and I think the answer is knowing who you are and accepting it. If you have that, the rest can come. Without it, don't bother.

I wasn't nearly ready to talk about the past and my role in it then. I didn't know myself well enough—the dark and light. If you're going to write about your life, you must have a sense of acceptance about the whole of who you are and a sense of equanimity about others, so that you can write fairly, without judgment—because, truly, which one of us really knows about a life other than our own? Along with that, being honest means starting where you are, and, I find, for me, somehow finding a way to marry truth and kindness.

Let me illustrate. My spiritual friend Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo once told me this story—"When I was very young living in England after the war, my family was very poor. My mother worked very hard and managed to put aside a few shillings and bought herself a much needed coat, which she modeled before me, proudly. It was yellow and made her look fat, so when she asked me how it made her look, I told her, "you look fat." My mother's face fell. She never wore that coat again. I had ruined her small pleasure." Jetsunma said it was the first time she realized truth has to be tempered with compassion and kindness. This holds true even for the writer, in my view, since, after all, art's job isn't to destroy, but to build up, to resuscitate and even to heal.

Being kind about the truth isn't the popular style of the day. The confessional and the idea of "telling the dirt" are what the culture expects. We forget as readers, and writers, that it's not just the truth, but a quality of truth, that we are striving for and that the truth doesn't have to be ugly. Even when it is, it must somehow be palatable, palatable enough that you can turn it over in your mind, deal with it.

Remembering Jetsunma's story, I revisited my memoir just to be sure I hadn't decimated anybody for the sake of a well-turned phrase or scene. My nerves about the piece have abated for now. But I'm sure the jitters will return. This is what you have to live with if you decide to write about your life. It's peopled with shared stories and everybody has a different idea about what happened.

I dread the idea of having to explain myself to others. I'm determined not to have to do it. Perhaps a well-written story about your life means that you won't have to answer to it since all the information you might have to give about it in person, and more, is there.

But will others perceive what you tried to do?

It's bad enough a writer lives in a court of her own making, with words as the constant judges. You feel like a child again, standing before your mommy. "Yes, I swear it's the truth." "Are you sure you're not lying?" How often have we felt that we were screwed whether we said yes or no? It's all about finding the balance. You can only hope the words hit their mark and that eventually the guilt about telling it like it was, as well as you could, dies.

About the Author

Arya-Francesca Jenkins is a long-time practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. She is a student of Khensur Rinpoche Lobsang Tenzin of The Chenrezig Center, Middletown, Conn. She helped to transcribe teachings for Reflections on a Mountain Lake: Teachings on Practical Buddhism by Tenzin Palmo. She writes poetry and essays, some of which have been published.