Monday, June 3, 2019

Writers React to Whether Memoirists Should Tell People They're In the Story

Last week I wrote a blog post whether memoir writers should inform others that we are writing about them. This touched off a debate. It’s not an easy decision whether to be “considerate” and let another know and it often comes down to your own personal ethics. You can read my thoughts on this blog post, as well as the comments here on the Women's Writing Circle.

I also posted the article on the National Association of Memoir Writer’s Facebook page and asked the writers commenting if I could share their thoughts. Here’s a summary, which I think offers an interesting roadmap to answering the question: Should I tell people they're in my memoir and let them read it before it's published?  Thanks to all who took the time to offer their experience and insight and allowing me to publish their comments here.

"I think it’s a question of personal ethics and assessing the potential outcome of informing vs. not—and it connects to our history with that person and each person’s perspective. There are potentials for healing and also misunderstanding and no one rule can apply."

"I’m not. I’m using a pen name and changing everyone’s name."

"I think a lot depends on what the relationships look like in real life. And what the topic is. If neutral or positive and we still have any kind of relationship with the person then I think being considerate is the kind thing to do. If negative, and it’s for depth of the story then changing details is a better option and no need to inform as no one will know it’s them. If it’s the core of the story, eg: abuse, etc, especially if unresolved and no relationship exists anymore, then I think letting them know would do more harm than good for both parties."

"Not necessary. Tell if you like...don't tell otherwise. "

"My story is mine. Behave better and I'll write better about you."

"I received a cease and desist letter from one of the people in my memoir when it was published. I HAD told him ahead of publication he was in it, and that I'd given him a nickname. He's still not speaking to me, but honestly, I wrote nicer things about him than I should have. I have more of an issue with family members who tell me I can't write about deceased relatives, but I just ignore them. I've also had friends tell me I need to get permission before writing about living family members (my own family says just don't use their last name, which is different than mine). I'm careful to make sure I'm writing my own story; it's not that. The thing is, we can write whatever we want and there is something liberating about allowing yourself to write what you want. It can always be revised. It's whether or not we choose to get it published that makes a difference."

"People in your life know that you're a storyteller. My disclaimer says: This is a work of nonfiction. The events, conversations, and experiences detailed herein have been faithfully rendered as the author has remembered them to the best of her ability. Names, identities and some circumstances have been changed or compressed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved."

"If we follow the main rule of memoir—write about our memories—then that comes first. If we are writing about others as our main focus, then it's not really about our memories, and we might want to rethink that. I didn't let people know, exactly, but it's implied, isn't it, that we will be writing about significant others...but since that should always be from our own POV then it will always be different from anyone else's POV or recollection."

"Personally, I would not let them know, but I would be thoughtful, considerate and err on the side of minimalism and caution. And what I genuinely thought to be true at the time."

"I heard from a fiction writer who adapted true events that were positive and life affirming into her novel--that one of the characters felt enormously exposed and vulnerable. As a result she stopped publication of her book in German--as the book would have then been accessible to him and others who know him. She felt she had ticked off all the things we are "supposed" to check and he had even given her permission to write the story, but when he read it, he had other feelings. It's not about how we portray people but the fact that we have drawn upon their lives for our work and our art. It gets very sticky. Someone I know "forgot" to mention her new memoir to her sister and it was at the press already--oops--her sister was not happy with not being informed, though what is said about her is positive. I think figuring out what is the best way to handle these things is hugely stressful and we still might make a decision that later we have to deal with. Thanks for opening up the topic."

Your thoughts and comments are welcome.


Linda C. Wisniewski said...

Interesting survey Susan. Thanks for posting. Here's my slant on this "thorny" issue:

Linda C. Wisniewski

Susan G. Weidener said...

Hi Linda, Great to hear from you and thank you for sharing "fallout" even from the best of intentions. When I wrote about my father's mid-life affair, he had been dead for years. I wrote a blog post on whether I could have written that story in my memoir if Dad had been alive, but, I know this...that event was a turning point in my own life because it was then that I came to the conclusion that you can never truly know what is in the heart of another person even one you love and think you know. Still, it is those family secrets that offer great challenges for the memoir writer and beg the question: how much do I want to share with the world and, if I do, how does it lend insight into my own story? Thanks so much for sharing your experience in your blog post: Whose Secret Is It? What I Wish I Hadn’t Shared In My Memoir.

Lydia said...

This is such an interesting discussion so far. Thank you for starting it.

In general, I tend to agree with the person you quoted who talked about the various types of relationships folks have and how they should affect what we do or don't say about them.

For example, I think it can be a very healing thing to discuss one's experience of abuse openly if that's something you want to do. (Or at least it sure has been a healing experience for me.) I don't think anyone ever has the obligation to cover something like that up in order to make their abuser feel better, and honestly I'd be quite wary of anyone who tries to pretend like abuse never happened.

If we're talking about normal/healthy relationships, I take a kind, gentle approach to the stories I tell about them as much as is humanely possible. I believe in assuming the best in people in this scenario, and I'd hope that would shine through in my writings about them.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Lydia, Thank you for your insightful comments. I, too, believe in a "gentle approach" when it comes to writing about relationships that are not based in abuse. I have written about my mother, for example, in the context of her times and her upbringing for women in that era. Otherwise, abuse needs never be sugarcoated...and writing about it is healing. This is a great observation..."I don't think anyone ever has the obligation to cover something like that up in order to make their abuser feel better, and honestly I'd be quite wary of anyone who tries to pretend like abuse never happened." As writers, we are bound to authenticity and honesty.

Marian Beaman said...

I appreciate your publishing a follow-up with such diverse comments; I relate to Lydia's "take" especially. And, yes, we are bound to authenticity and honesty. Readers will see a Disclaimer in the front matter when my memoir is published. I can't predict what the fall-out, if any, will be. I HAD to tell my story, you know.

Some writers have really had to put up with a hailstorm - Wow!

Susan G. Weidener said...

Marian, I recently took a drive up through "Mennonite Country" Shady Maple Farm Market. Of course, as I drove past a Mennonite church and looked out on the rolling green Pennsylvania countryside, I thought about you and your journey to leave and find out who you are. Your story takes as much courage to write, as any, good friend.