When my memoir, The Sky Begins At Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community and Coming Home to the Body, was in its just-about final, final, final draft, a friend who had recently read it told me to cut the part where I kind of diss a family member. As soon as she suggested this, a chord stuck through the core of me. I knew she was right, and I also knew how much I didn't ever want to use my writing to counter negative family dynamics in this way, and more to the point, how I wasn't a writer so I "get back at" people who had done me wrong.
My decision at that point was easy: the scene wasn't crucial to the book, and the family member was an exceedingly minor character, but this experience, along with teaching studentswriting memoir and memoir-esque projects for years, has made me think hard about what it means to write about real people. Moreover, I've been pondering for many years the ethics of writing about other people's lives. My friends and family know well that anything they do on the delightful/amusing/winning side of things may well appear in my blog (they also know I don't tend to exposure their foibles) or perhaps in an essay or memoir, yet just having people know you're a writer who might use them as material isn't, in itself, ethical to my mind.
Here are some notions and ground rules I've arrived at over the years:
- SHOW THEM THE WRITING AHEAD OF TIME: If you're writing about a family member or friend in something about to be published, it's only fair to show it to them and make sure publication wouldn't cause them pain. The exception is, of course, writing about estranged people who brutalized you (but even then, take good care to present the story in the way it best needs to be told -- more on this in point #6). For a blog or short essay, I might say to someone, "Hey, I want to include a picture of you in your starry pink dress and write about what you said about springtime in my blog. Cool with you?" For something more substantial, share the manuscript ahead of time. When I wrote my forthcoming book Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each other, based on oral histories with two men, I showed them first the interviews and later the manuscript. At the same time, I made it clear that I wouldn't be changing any quotes (both men are not native English speakers), nor would I write things necessarily the way they themselves would write them, but if there was something they couldn't live with seeing in print, I would remove or alter it. When my memoir was in final stages, I sent copies to my immediate family members as well as my husband and children, and I told them, "Let me know if there's something about you that really bothers you." Hardly anyone asked me to change anything, but seeing it ahead of time helped them feel good about the process.
- DON'T TATTLE-TAIL, DO TELL THE TRUTH:What was true when you were five is true now. Our writing -- even and especially memoir -- should ever be to tattle-tail on someone or "even the score." First of all, such writing could be legally questionable. Second of all, it's just not right to use our privilege as writers (as in, the privilege of putting our side of things out into the world) to hold power over another person. Even if you're writing about a family member who physically abused you, the writing will be strongest and most transformative if it's written from the perspective of telling your truth rather than judging and convicting your torturers. What's the difference? Usually, it's perspective -- having had enough time, space and healing pass through you that you can tell the story that wants to be told. When its to telling the truth, showing -- through precise description and clear images -- will go much further than bundling it up in a lot of adjectives.
- REPRESENT YOURSELF UNMERCIFULLY AND WARMLY: There's a line in one of my favorite movies, "Almost Famous," where the almost-famous rock star is worried about how the very young rock journalist will portray the band in a Rolling Stone article. The journalist says, "I will quote you warmly and accurately." Later, the journalist's mentor tells him to "be unmerciful," and reminds him that sanitizing a story doesn't serve anyone. When writing about yourself, you need to be especially unmerciful and yet also warm. Show your humanness: your foibles and failures, your stupid thinking and social gaffs. While you don't need to go perhaps as far as Anne Lamott, who has turned self-consciousness and flawed humanness into the core of some of her good memoirs, it is important to be honest. Not only will it come off at unbelievable if you present yourself as too good to be true; it will also make for a boring book.
- THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH ASKING PERMISSION: I had started writing my forthcoming novel, The Divorce Girl, about 16 years ago. Soon after, I had a conversation with my father. "I'm writing a novel about the divorce," I told him, meaning that it was about his divorce from my mother. He shrugged, "Write what you want." That conversation gave me greater freedom in writing the novel, and started us toward some kind of forgiveness and reconciliation. While this doesn't always happen, there's nothing wrong in erring on the side of asking such questions.
- JUST BECAUSE SOMEONE IS DEAD DOESN'T MEAN S/HE IS FAIR GAME: It's easy to think, "I'll write the truth about Mom after she's dead," and many people do wait until the ones who did them the most harm can show up in print. But its a fallacy to believe the coast is ethically clear when someone is dead. Others who knew and loved them live on, and also, it's a good thing to be in good relationship even with those we've lost. So think through how to best portray someone and a situation in the clearest, truest, and more ethical light. Doing so serves you and the highest aspiration of the writing.
- IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS: What is your intention with your writing? What do you want to give to readers? Why are you writing this article or essay or book? Strip away whatever yearning to be loved or accepted, get revenge, feel worthy enough and whatever else is floating on the surface. Then ask the writing what its deepest intention is, and how you can best serve this piece of writing in line with your own values.