• Wendy Brown-Baez
  • Writing Memoir: Secondary Characters, How Do We Write about People We Know?
This blog was featured on 12/06/2017
Writing Memoir: Secondary Characters, How Do We Write about People We Know?

We know that the stories we are compelled to write are the stories that haunt us, the ones that won’t let go. For many of us, these stories are based on memories. We write memoirs in order to reflect on our past and make sense of it, to share our experiences and the insights gained, and to capture those moments of joy or terror that make us who we are. I believe every one of us has a powerful and engaging story to tell.

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?

 The world would split open.”  --Muriel Rukeyser

To write from a deeper place of vulnerability and to become open to the pain of one’s memories, to remain with a soft heart despite the feelings of rage, guilt, grief, and denial that might arise, to allow the process to take you over the edge to where you might see the threads of your life in an intricate weaving instead of a tangled mess, this takes patience, practice, and using all the writer’s tools you know: writing in a group, taking a workshop, using writing exercises from books such as Pain and Possibility by Gabriella Rico or any of the Artist Way series by Julia Cameron, or a writer’s retreat. Or it may be as simple as reading back through your journals or calling someone to confirm details, playing a song from that era, flipping through a photo album, or returning to the place where the memories were born. Recording your dreams, meditating, and even eating the same foods might trigger something. Memories are built from our senses--the crunchy taste of falafel in Israel, the scent of garbage in the Mercado in Oaxaca, the day everyone in the circle wore blue, how the sea washed cold against our feet, the perfume of grandmother’s garden, the rumbling of buses below the window.

There is a time for gathering memories and putting them down on the page and there is a time to craft the words into an art form. What makes good writing? What makes a memoir refreshing and accessible? What makes readers connect to your story?

Honesty, vulnerability and courage

 Good writing comes from a place of both courage and vulnerability. To show our human side: our failures, mistakes, doubts and fears, our desires, fantasies, hopes and dreams, is a way to connect with readers. We must be a sympathetic character and we may have to step back from our story in a more objective way to ensure that we are revealing ourselves as flawed and yet determined or resilient human beings. We must have the courage to tell the truth, despite those nagging voices that worry what others might think, in particular the other people in our story. Will they be offended, will they be shocked by our revelations, will they be hurt? You write the story as if no one else will read it but edit the story for the whole world to hear.

In other words, if you are writing about real people, you must be aware of your motivations. Tracy Seely, author of My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas wrote that it is essential to have clean motives and transparency. If the person in your story is necessary and yet his/her actions are shown in an unfavorable light, what are the possible ways to handle this?

Some writers change the names and identifying characteristics of secondary characters. Some writers let the people in their stories read about themselves ahead of time. Some ask permission from those they write about. If you are writing about a well-known public figure or place or business, your publisher may have you consult a lawyer. If you are writing about close family members that can be identified, you may consult a lawyer or ask their permission. But ultimately it is why you are telling this story that will influence the outcome.

At the 2015 AWP conference panel on writing personal essays, each member of the panel had a different answer to the question of how to deal with this issue, ranging from “I did not ask permission ahead of time and I was surprised by the support I received” to “Yes, my family member was upset, but not for the reasons I thought he would be.” When you publish, reactions from those you wrote about may not be supportive or someone may be hurt and it is up to you as the writer to decide if it is something you can live with. Are you compelled to tell this story? Should you change it to fiction? Personally, I believe if you write with the intention of sharing your story of healing, transformation or overcoming and surviving, the power of the story will transcend other people's reactions.

By the way, the panel also mentioned that you must never assume someone will not read your work because they don't read literary journals or small magazines or on-line journals. The internet spreads our words everywhere and you never know where they will pop up.

Mark Fowler in his blog “Rights of Writers” writes: "Remember, to be actionable, the disclosure must be of private facts that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.  Most memoirs don't venture into that territory.  Moreover, book editors often tell their authors to write the truth and let the in-house lawyers figure out how the truth -- or at least most of it -- can be safely published."

 Here is full disclosure: I changed everyone's names in Flowers in the Wind. Many of the people I wrote about are no longer alive but their family members are. I did not assume that anyone who once was part of our alternative lifestyle would want publicity. I told my story through my own interpretation and take full responsibility for that. However, I choose not to ask permission. I feel that this is a story that speaks to baby boomers who tried alternative lifestyles, to artistic creatives and visionaries, pilgrims and spiritual seekers, as well as anyone who has lost a dream and had to start over again.

* This post was originally published in July 2015.

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