Monday, May 27, 2019

Should a Memoir Writer Let Someone Know She is Writing About Them?

There was an interesting story in the news this week about the singer Moby regretting that he did not inform the actress Natalie Portman that he would be writing about her in his memoir. Apparently, his recollection of events was different than hers and after she challenged that recollection, he apologized...not so much for their differing recollections, as he apologized to her and others in his memoir Then It Fell Apart that he had been “inconsiderate" in not telling them in advance he would be writing about them. You can read the story here.

While most of us who pen memoirs are hardly as famous as Moby and Natalie Portman, this is our nightmare scenario ... and begs the questions: Should I tell someone I am writing about them in my memoir? Should I let them read what I have written before the book is published?

Questions to ask:
  • Why am I writing about this person in the first place? 
  • Is it from a place of angst? 
  • From love? 
  • From realization that they made a difference in my journey? 
  • What is my motivation and how honestly am I portraying them and our relationship? 
  • Will having them read the memoir result in questioning myself and tampering with the truth of my story?
For me, it became a matter of changing the names of minor characters in my memoir―but not the names of my family. The disclaimer that prefaced my memoir also addressed this. I suppose I would advise: it is up to each writer whether to inform the person she is writing about ... up to her to let them read the book prior to publication. Fortunately, or unfortunately, no two people remember the same story in the same way. The variations in memory are usually pretty striking. As an old writing instructor of mine often would say, “Any story told twice is fiction.” 

Without going into all the ins and outs of disclosure and defamation, it is a good rule of thumb to remember that if what you write is neutral, or even favorable, no worries. If it is embarrassing to the person, or could hurt them professionally or otherwise, then it is another matter. Of course, if you change the distinguishing characteristics, let’s say, and no one would recognize them anyway, you have the load lessened in presenting them honestly and authentically, all warts and flaws. For example, this works with friends, ex-lovers, etc. Not so much with ex-husbands, parents or children since memoir writers are bound by the very nature of the genre as nonfiction storytellers.

The decision whether or not to be “considerate” and let another know you plan to write about them may be one of the hardest a memoir writer has to make. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Linda Hoye said...

This is a good question, and one worthy of careful consideration. With my first book, I gave my children the opportunity to read it first as there was some not-so-pretty truth about their mother in it. Most of the others in my story were deceased so it wasn’t an issue. With my new book I’ve decided that I’m going to send chapters to those who are in it and allow them to read and comment before I move forward. It’s a very different book than the first one. No skeletons are being released to dance this time. :)

kathleen pooler said...

Susan, I made sure that both my children were a part of my memoir writing about being the mother of an addict right from the start. I used their real names with their permission. I also wrote a disclosure in the beginning acknowledging that my recall of events may be different than others.For more minor characters I did change names but I let the person know they were in it. A person has to decide what they can live with. I was prepared to not publish it if my children did not buy into it. Luckily they both agreed. I had to wait for my son who is a key character to be ready which took several years.You ask a very important question and one that has to. be decided
Individually. And I agree, it is one of the greatest challenges a memoir writer has to face. Great post.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Linda, I'm wondering...when you get back their comments what will you do with them? Or, is that not important, rather, the importance is showing the consideration to let them read it first? When you talk about there was "some not-so-pretty truth" about their mother, are you referring to yourself? How is the new memoir different than the first memoir?

Susan G. Weidener said...

Kathy, I know you had your children read your new memoir, as would I since they are main characters in your story. In my first memoir, my sons had no interest or inclination to read it until several years after it had been published. In my new memoir, I will show them the parts where they are in it, although some of the scenes have already been published on my blog. Minor characters, no. It would be a gargantuan task to contact all of them, some of whom I am not speaking to anymore, so, I will change their names. I did this in my first two memoirs, as well, as it would have taken more time and effort than I was prepared to deal with in terms of contacting them and hashing out what they thought, versus what I knew to be the truth, at least as it pertained to me.

Linda Hoye said...

Susan, I intend to share the chapter with them out of respect and consideration. There’s nothing negative in it—quite the contrary, in fact. That said, I treasure the relationships and will consider any and all comments they have, to the point of making revisions. (Of course, I am saying this now, when I’m still a few drafts away from finishing.) And yes, my comment about the “not-so-pretty-truth” about my children’s mother was referring to myself. Confusing choice of words. This is a great topic to give thought to. Thank you.