Writing About Real People: The Ethics of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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Comments
  • Thanks so much, Pamela, Carol and Katharina. I think sometimes it makes sense to ask permission and sometimes to say, "Let me know if there's anything you can't live with, and then we can talk together about how to navigate this situation." That balance -- as you all wrote about -- between telling the truth and respecting those who write about is a constantly moving one, like carrying a full glass of water up a mountain (you have to keep adjusting your hold on the glass). As for keeping your blog anonymous, that can work, but then you're not putting yourself out there as a writer, and you're also not building a base of potential readers for published works outside of the blog, so that's something to think about.

  • Pamela Olson

    Thanks for this, an excellent post. I know I tend to try to find and write about the best in people -- even those who are your enemies. It's not just because it feels queasy to write bad things about people (a "gut instinct" that probably isn't a coincidence, but carefully evolved over thousands of years of being a social being), it also reflects better on you, reduces potential conflicts, and makes you more credible.

    The lesson here is a profound one. Why would it make you instinctively more credible to find the good in people? Apparently, deep down, like Anne Frank, we believe that most people are good at heart, and evil is an all-too-prevalent deviation from that norm, usually born of pain, fear, and ignorance.

  • Carol Hand

    Very well said. I have some delicate matters I want to write about, and sometimes passion drives me to wanting to lay out the good, bad, and ugly in a very emotional way. Do I blog that way at times? Guilty as charged. A lot of times I'll go back later and hit the delete button. However, once something is out in print, there is no delete button. This all leads me to, "Why do I want to write about these things in the first place?" The answer is that I want to share my story in a way that may help some women that have been, or are going down the same road I have been down. I know I can do that without alienating others in my life. I think I may just need a little more time to distance myself from the emotions I still have about the past.

  • Katharina Chase

    This is a great article! I struggle with this all the time, how to tell the truth in the kindest way. After all, everyone has their own truth. This is perhaps something more immediate for bloggers. I've written about it quite a few times, trying to understand and find a solution to it through writing but it'll forever be a grey area I think. I've written blog posts where I've not only changed people's names, I've also kept myself totally anonymous, never publicising the blog to anyone I know. That was odd but it kind of worked, although it's pretty sly and dishonest I guess. I know eventually I'll want to publish stuff about friends and family and I'm just going to have to follow what you say and actually ask permission. Scary!

  • Thanks so much for commenting. Heather, I know what you mean about figuring out how to "tell the truth in love," great phrase to describe the ethical and writerly challenge. Laura and Lara, I wrote another blog post exactly on this topic last week when I was editing the site (thus all the posts): http://www.shewrites.com/profiles/blogs/opening-up-your-life-fictionalizing-real-life. I also think the same applies for fiction or non-fiction (or even poetry) when you're writing about real people: you need to find how to tell the truth for the highest good of the story according to your ethics and values, and in balance (as best you can) with the people affected. I think the answer to this is complex and individualized, but just thinking about it all as mindfully and compassionately as possible can help us find our own best answers. Thanks for the great comments!

  • Heather Marsten

    Thank you for this post. I am working on my memoir, and some of the family members are still alive. While they hurt me in the past, I don't want to cause them or their children pain - I have to figure out how to tell the truth in love. 

  • Laura Valeri

    Hi Lara, I'm glad you posted that. I'm a fiction writer, and have been trying to get across to the writing community for years that "just because it's fiction doesn't mean it isn't true," and therefore, that as fiction writers we also have ethical responsibility to others.  I appreciate your posting this.  You definitely want to have lively characters, and fiction writers have been borrowing from real life people for ages.  I think that if you think your writing may hurt others, then you're stuck with the same exact ethical dilemmas that memoirist face.  Maybe the people you write about may not be as exposed as if you used their real names, but they may recognize themselves, and others too, and certainly they will recognize their situation -- and their story.  Therefore, I say, you should probably let them know you're writing about them. Just my two cents.

  • Lara Sterling

    Hi Caryn. I thought this was a good post. My question is what to do when one is writing fiction -- as I am. I am writing short stories with characters whose traits I am pulling heavily on from real life. The idea is to then go back and change some of the information so people won't be able to recognize themselves in the stories. The problem is, I spent about two years trying to create fictional characters who never had realistic motivations. Lo and behold, I found a way to create fascinating characters with very real lives and real motivations -- I pulled from the people I've known. :-) Yeah, some of the people are long out of my life, but there are a few family members who appear, even if they are in exaggerated form, and some are friends are there too, who I do still speak to., if not very often. Of course, I figure prominently in the stories, usually baring my worst sides, often blow-up to be quite archetypal. So it's not like I'm only talking about other people. It's just I've known people who have had such strange lives -- way stranger than fiction. I actually love the stories, but don't want to hurt people, or get in other trouble, law wise. Suggestions? Can I just take my chances after changing people enough so at least it's not so obvious?

    Thanks.

  • Dana Walrath

    Thanks for a great post! Your six rules help break down some of barriers to honest memoir.   

  • Melinda Freeman

    This was very helpful. I'm writing my first book and have been wondering how to handle telling the truth about people who will probably end up reading it. Thank you.

  • Thanks, Maria, for your excellent and thoughtful comments. I like what you say about how readers can tell when you're holding back, and my notion is to see what the story needs most, and then how to write it for the good of all and with as much integrity (alignment to my values) as possible. I do again suggest the option of different names for people -- many memoirists do this and let you know in the forward or acknowledgements. I think the thing is to say what is true, what needs to be said, in your own voice and according to your own values and, at the same time, be aware of how your writing might affect real people, and do what you can to build connections instead of divides. Sometimes such writing can bridge divides too.

  • Hi Pia -- I don't know what to tell you when it comes to what to include and whatnot, but I think changing the names of people and some identifying characteristics might be an option although people will see what they want to see. Yet I think following the suggestions I put forth -- being very clear about your intentions and acting with the greatest integrity as a writer -- is all you can do as well as put your story forth when the timing seems best for you. As for someone being "too busy" to read the manuscript, you could give her a deadline, and then move ahead....but ultimately, it's your decision.

  • pia savage

    This is wonderful. I do have a question.

    I'm writing a memoir about having an undiagnosed disability and all my problems being blamed on my being adopted.

    Much of it has been published in a slightly different form in psychology today.

    My sister becomes angry--very angry because she thinks I portray our family as having money and that's classless. I agree but certain things about the way we lived need to be stated.  She used to be angry because she was sure I portrayed our parents as cruel and horrible in my personal blog--that she didn't read. Many others did and loved it for the warm family stories. My father was an angry person with a temper and that's pivotal to the story but I don't dwell on that and "forgave" him many years before he apologized to me for wanting me to be "perfect" as I was so close to perfect in his eyes.

    I love my sister very much but know I'm going to say somethings that will get her crazy. Problem is I have no idea what will set her off. I would give her the manuscript to read but she's "too busy" I honestly fear her wrath though she can be the most loving person. This is holding me back. I will take any suggestions.

  • Maria Ross

    Wonderful post, Caryn! I just published - and will be launching in print on May 1 - my memoir Rebooting My Brain: How a Freak Aneurysm Reframed My Life. The SF Book Review just mentioned how much they liked my unflinching candor. But it was an interesting journey to get there.

    First, I had to ensure my husband was okay with what I was revealing about my recovery and about him. He comes across like a hero in most of the book, so that wasn't too hard! But he's also a very practical guy. As long as I cite fact, he didn't care that I talked about him breaking down in tears, arguing with me, etc since it was all true. He's also not the type to portray some false machismo to the world, either so he was fine with me presenting him as vulnerable at times. But that would have been tough if he objected to it, b/c it really was important to the story to convey that care and closeness and how this crisis strengthened our marriage.

     

    But you bring up such interesting points, since I long ago started a funny but sweet memoir about griwing up Italian-American (which I still may dust off one day!). In it, I talk about my relationship with my mother and I've never shown it to her. I think I'm very complimentary but she might perceive things differently. So I'm not quite sure what I will do when the time comes.

     

    For my curren book, I did ask all of my friends and family permission to use their real names and I also offered to show them the parts that mentioned them. Except for one friend, they all trusted me enough to say "Go with it." But like you say, I'm glad I asked!

    Readers can tell when you're holding back. Someone once said to me that what you don't say in a true story can be as compelling as what you DO say!

    Thanks for bringing up this important struggle that non-fiction and memoir writers have in writing the truth.