(Note: This post is part of my “Advice From an Editor” Series, and is an example of actual advice I have given my editing clients.)
Writing memoirs has become a very popular activity–and some authors tend to dash into it with great enthusiasm, but not always with careful consideration of how their intriguing “tell all” stories are going to affect the people they are writing about … and how that is going to affect the author’s own life if readers take offense at some of the information that has been splashed about for all the world to see. In this post, I will provide suggestions on how you can tell your story without causing undue pain to those whom you write about, and also save yourself from negative reactions and even potential lawsuits.
Memoir or creative non-fiction or autobiography:
First of all, you need to decide what format your story will take. An autobiography (or biography) tends to be a more “factual” telling of a person’s life, and usually is not very emotional. It is told from a more objective stance than from a subjective, personal stance, and usually it covers a person’s entire life (up to point at which the author is writing). An autobiography (or biography) tries to include more than just the author’s memory and point of view about events; the author interviews other people involved in events to include their memory and point of view of the events discussed. Autobiographies almost always use actual place names, dates, and names of people. When including dialogue, it should be quoted as accurately as possible.
A memoir is also a non-fiction story about yourself, but it may only cover a relatively small portion of your life, or even a single event, or it may follow a theme which picks up a variety of related parts of your life. While memoirs are “true” stories (told from the author’s point of view, and true to their memories), they are usually written in more of a “story” format that in the formal non-fiction format of an autobiography. Memoirs thus may be quite a lot more emotional than autobiographies. Memoirs can have changes in names and places to protect people; the author should, however, put a note in the book explaining that this is a true story but names of people and places have been changed. When including dialogue, it does not need to be a perfect quotation, but should be as close as possible to what you remember the people saying.
If you decide to change the story by adding events that did not happen, or changing events, or combining two or three similar characters to make one character, or otherwise fictionalize the story, you will be writing creative non-fiction — or even a novel, if you change the story quite dramatically. In this situation, you have more freedom to change the story to suit the theme you are presenting, but since it is still based on true people and events, especially if some or all of those people are still alive, you should include an explanation that the story is a fictionalized account based on true events and people. On the other hand, if you go so far as to change pretty much everything, you may simply present it as a novel.
When to change people or place names in a memoir:
If you are wise, you will consider offering some of the people who are mentioned in the story, the chance to read the manuscript and give their input. This is especially important if what you have written about them could cause offense, or are likely to strike back at you in some way. While it is true that you can’t be sued for writing about true events, if it can be proven that the “memory” you’ve recorded is strongly reflective of your opinion, and is not based on generally accepted facts, you could find yourself in legal trouble. A memoirist has the right to tell the story from his or her point and view, as truthfully as possible based on his or her own memories and is not obliged to include other points of view; yet, even if there is no likelihood of legal action, you should consider whether you are willing to chance damaging your relationships with those who are important in your life. In cases where this could be an outcome, you may wish to change names and identifying information of particular individuals, or even of everyone in the story. You might also consider removing or changing names of locations and other identifying information. For example, instead of naming a particular town, you might call it “a community in ____ region/state/province.” You might also consider simply removing certain people from the story altogether if their part in it is not essential to the event or theme of the story. The same thing applies to particular details around events in the story. However, if you find yourself stripping away too much, you have to ask yourself if it is worth writing this memoir at all, or if you should instead write a novel-type work of creative non-fiction that allows for more fictionalization.
When to use a pseudonym:
If people in your story, especially family members or persons who could conceivably sue you or cause you a lot of trouble, are VERY opposed to what you share in the story, you may wish to write under an author pseudonym to protect yourself as well as people in the story. The trouble with using pseudonyms for one book is that unless you decide to do all your books under that pseudonym, readers are unlikely to “connect” you as the author of all the books, which may be a disadvantage to you.
Think about who your audience will be:
What you decide to do about all this will also depend on your audience. If you are only writing for family members and possibly close friends and will not be putting your book into public circulation, it is probably fine to leave it as is as long as you are comfortable with how it will affect your relationships with those few people. If, however, you want to reach out to a wider audience, you really do need to consider the feelings and reputation of those who are part of the story–including yourself. This is especially true if you are going to be selling it to people in locations where the people in your story are well known.
Advice From An Editor series
Has this editor’s advice been helpful? Be sure to check out the other posts in this Advice From An Editor series as they are published. A full list of the articles can be found on the Writing and Editing Articles page. And if you have advice about finding traditional publishers and/or agents that you’d like to share with other writers, please be sure to add it in the comments. Thank you!
If I can provide you with editing assistance, be sure to contact me! Find out more about my Pen and Paper Mama Services (editing, writing, and tutoring) here.