“If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”Anne Lamott
While the above quote sounds harsh, there is truth in it. Sometimes, our stories include other people who were (and maybe are) a little prickly. Frustrating. Or, perhaps, harmful. And then, there are the people who’ve done no harm, but they just don’t want to show up in your story. Maybe they don’t want you to spill the family secrets or drag skeletons out of the closet – even the little ones. When writing about friends and family members, it’s important to approach the topic with sensitivity and caution. Writing about loved ones can be a tricky balance between telling our own truth and respecting their privacy and feelings.
We remind people of their “permission to write,” and when writing memoir, we add, “permission to write your story, your way.” It’s a memoir, not an exhaustive report of all the facts. But as you write your story, here are some things to keep in mind that might help you avoid hurt feelings.
Show, don’t tell. This is good writing advice for any genre, but in memoir, if Uncle Joe was an alcoholic, you don’t have to spell it out. Show the empty bottles that accumulate in the trash every night, or how his shaking hands waved hello. No one sets out to be the antagonist in a story. Let the reader see how life can shape us, and give us an empathetic view of all the people in your story. Bitter words don’t make a good read.
Seek perspective. Talk to family members (if you can) to get their side of the story. But don’t interrogate them; ask questions as if you are at a distance, conducting an interview. Instead of point blank asking why your mother put you in that horrible preschool beauty pageant, ask her if she had any unfulfilled dreams for you. Even if it hurts to hear, and you want to scream into your pillow when you get home, at least you’ve started from a neutral place, and not done more harm to your relationship.
Stick to the Truth. Don’t fall into the trap of making assumptions or exaggerating details to create a more interesting narrative. If you fabricate in your story, you’ll cause more problems with friends and family members.
Keep your work to yourself… for now. Don’t ask the people who appear in your book to read it along the way, check facts, or make suggestions. This will derail your writing by causing you to second-guess your memory and what you’ve chosen to include. So, when should you have them read it? When you have a publication date, you can tell them what is coming. Here’s a good way to say it: “I’ve written a memoir. These are my memories, and I’m sure your story is a little different.”
Change some names. If you want to protect the privacy of friends and family, consider using pseudonyms instead of their real names. This can be a good way to keep them anonymous while still telling your story. But be fair to the reader and let them know that you have changed some names.
Be respectful. Avoid using derogatory or offensive language and be careful not to criticize or judge your loved ones harshly. Remember that everyone has their own story and their own perspective, and try to approach your writing with empathy and understanding. If you’re not sure how to write about a particular person or situation, consider talking to a therapist or trusted friend for guidance.
And if you’re still worried and wondering if you could get sued, here’s the deal with libel. In a court of law, the person suing has to prove that:
1. You lied.
2. You lied on purpose.
3. Your lies damaged them in terms of hard cash or public reputation.
“This book hurt my feelings” won’t win the case. Also, most of us aren’t worth suing, so rest easy.
Memoir writing is always risky. You can’t please everyone (remember, that’s not your job) and there will always be someone who wishes you hadn’t written your memoir. But it’s your story, and your journey. In the end, it’s worth all the work, heart, and risk you’ve put into it.