It takes an enormous amount of courage to write memoir, especially one that deals with a difficult time in a writer’s life. As personal and sometimes painful memories take shape on the page, a memoirist must re-live these moments first in writing and then over and over again in the editing.
A memoir by its very nature describes life events and people subjectively. Our memories are neither biographical nor objective but recalled because of the effect they have upon us. Two members of a family can remember the same event entirely differently, depending on whether they viewed it positively or negatively. Relationships with those closest to us can be tricky enough to navigate but can become fraught when we choose to write about them. And if we describe aspects of their behaviour that might not flatter them, we owe it to them (and ourselves) to be cautious.
For a writer who hates confrontation, their first reaction might be not to tell them. But no matter how much we might want to pretend everything will be fine, in the hope the problem will go away, it is essential to notify people before publication that they will be appearing in your book.
Understandably this can cause emerging memoirists enough anxiety to change tack and fictionalise their story, in the hope that the people in their lives won’t recognise themselves. But providing you are sensitive to other people's concerns, and you understand that although you have a right to write about others you have a responsibility towards them, you should be okay. In our rush to get our story down, it’s easy to forget what a memoir is (and what it isn’t).
Memoir is a search to understand the human condition - to tell a personal, resonating story. Memoir writers look back with empathy – towards themselves and others.
Handling the Truth
If you take this attitude of empathy, as the memoirist Fran Macilvey did, you will have little to fear. The author of Trapped: My Life with Cerebral Palsy believes that if we do have to trespass on the lives of others, we owe it to them to be authentic and gentle.
A memoirist who preferred not to be quoted told me he included family members in his memoir and allowed them to read his first and final drafts. He asked them if they preferred to see the incidents expressed differently or eliminated from the manuscript. Only once was a minor rewrite requested. And in the end, the chapter in question was deleted at the suggestion of the editor as it was not central to the narrative.
Beth and Fran’s emphasis on empathy towards others is critical: once the compassion is lost and relationships break down, authors can become fearful that an aggrieved other may seek to prevent them from publishing their book. Or worse still, take legal action against them.
While an author might want to consult a lawyer for peace of mind, it can be an expensive way to seek reassurance. If you are commissioned by a major publisher, your book will be scrutinised for any defamatory material. But authors published by an independent or who are self-publishing will end up paying a media lawyer out of their own pocket. And these legal specialists are not cheap. When fees can be several hundred dollars an hour, the author, particularly a debut one, has no guarantee they will recoup that money back in book sales. And I’d rather they spent their money on the content, for example, another round of structural editing, rather than on legal fees. And as my anonymous contributor pointed out, the contentious chapter he’d been agonising over never even made it into the final version, thanks to wise counsel from his editor.
One of the stories Fran told me was that there was someone in her memoir who at times might not have been shown in the most flattering light yet turned out to be incredibly helpful.
You never know who is going to react, or about what. For that reason, tread carefully and change names (if necessary). When authors worry about being sued, it is because they are unsure of the scope of a memoir. If we stick to basic courtesies, are at least as hard on ourselves as we are on others, and write as truthfully as we can, we should be fine.
Author of Trapped: My Life with Cerebral Palsy
Another way to avoid confrontation is to think about putting enough time and distance between yourself and when the events happened. Being sensitive when you tell people will help get them on side. I waited until I had a polished draft of Castles in the Air: A Family Memoir of Love and Loss before I sent the principal characters the sections they would appear in. I made it my business not to alienate anyone, particularly those in my life who live far away from me. If there were misunderstandings, it was not going to be possible to resolve them face-to-face. To protect their identity, I referred to certain characters by their relationship to me, rather than by name.
As Fran says, as long as we are not defamatory (inflating the truth) or malicious (being deliberately hurtful)—, by law we have the right to express ourselves. It’s called the defence of 'truth'. After all, how can we be sued because of our memories? Chances are, in any case, the other person won't even remember them.
Alison Ripley Cubitt is a multi-genre author and screenwriter with a background in television production. A third-culture kid, she was born in Malaysia. She finished school and went to university in New Zealand after the family emigrated there. Bitten by the travel bug from an early age, she lived in Australia and the UK, working in film and TV for the BBC and Walt Disney for 15 years. An author, memoirist, novelist and screenwriter, she co-writes thrillers (with Sean Cubitt) as Lambert Nagle. She currently lives in an English village in the Hampshire countryside.
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