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.