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.