5 Comments

A Good Chat, a Good Chap: Writing About Alive People

from Flickr user CraigeMorsels

from Flickr user CraigeMorsels

One of the many things that I laugh at myself about is that I’m 32. There’s really no call for me to be writing a memoir. I’ve got no business.

I don’t think it would matter what I was working on, I’d feel like I had no business writing it.

Another thing that gives me chuckles and massive, intestine-twisting anxiety in equal parts is that I’m writing a lot about alive people.

Some of these alive people are people with whom I’ve not been on the greatest terms for some time. A lot of them are members of my family.

And this is shitty, but I really am not worried too much about writing stuff about my parents. They might be upset with me for a while, but they won’t stop talking to me forever, because they love the hell out of their grandchild. Who knew that having a baby at 24, which is one of the many things I’m writing about, would protect me from memoir backlash in the future? Ha!

I’m working through an edition of Writing the Memoir: From Truth To Art, and the section on writing about people who are alive says (this is a paraphrase),

You have a responsibility to the people you’re writing about other than yourself, you don’t necessarily have to stop what you’re doing, but you have to understand that what you’re doing may have larger consequences for them, and is it worth it? The limits of responsibility and how to define them vary from writer to writer, from story to story. Some people do it this way, others do it another way, your answer will depend on your sense of ethics and your willingness to open yourself to legal trouble. More on that in the appendix.

The appendix says that memoirists have to worry about defamation and invasion of privacy. There are a bunch of things that a work has to be in order to be defaming, and one of the things is false, so I feel fairly safe from that one. It also says you’re probably okay if you change names and avoid specifically identifiable information, which I would do anyway, because I worry about getting sued, and when pressed, about potential harm to the people I know or have known, even though some of them deserve my ire.

I’m not sure I’m fond of the idea of literary revenge. It strikes me as unproductive and ultimately unsatisfactory. I am trying to be fair, even when it is hard.

Of course, I’ve thought a lot about this.

Good Chap

Over the past several weeks, you’ve read some stories involving others. Sometimes those stories have been intimate, like in the post about my sister and I showering together.

I sent my sister the copy I intended to use, and she said, “well, that’s not exactly how I remember it, but that’s the beauty of narrative, right?” She gave me her blessing.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the first time I ever gave a guy a blow job. It was a thing I really hadn’t thought about in probably years, and it just leapt off my fingers.

And that hasn’t been posted yet, but it will be.

And I felt like, since that guy is still alive, and since we have friends in common, and since I thought it would be shitty for him to get a phone call something like this:

“Hello.”

“OH MY GOD, DUDE, APRIL WROTE ABOUT YOU ON HER BLOG!”

[silence]

“I DIDN’T KNOW YOUR PENIS IS RED!”

it would be classy of me to spare him by getting his permission, or at least say, “This is what I’m doing.  I’d love to use your real name. What are your thoughts?”

Because that guy possesses Mad Literary Respec, he said, (paraphrasing again, to protect the innocent) You totally weren’t required to ask me, but I appreciate it that you did. I’m cool as long as you don’t use my real name.

Then I said, “Dangit. Your real name is perfect.”

Then he said, “How about Leo?”

Then I said, “Baller.”

But Penelope says that you should never be afraid to get permission or to negotiate.

And doing that, which is sometimes way out of my comfort zone, is one of the many ways in which I shall grow, a lot, by writing this thing, and already have, and some of the other gajillion reasons I really don’t care if it never sees the light of day beyond this blog (though I’m totally operating under the assumption that somebody will publish it. How’s that for self-aggrandizing paradox?).

So what I’m saying here is that the more I write, the more I find that there are so, so few hard-and-fast rules that I should just do it, go with my gut, and work out the rest of it later.

I offer the same to you: Just do it. Carpe Diem. Now or never. Feliz Navidad. Etc.

5 comments on “A Good Chat, a Good Chap: Writing About Alive People

  1. I love this post. You are definitely on a roll. Sláinte, etc. :)

  2. Good luck with it. In general, you’re right about defamation and privacy torts (at least in the US): if you change names and other identifiable information you are often okay. Those types of torts are extremely difficult for plaintiffs to win, but that doesn’t stop an angry person from filing a lawsuit and dragging you into court. You might win in the end, but at what cost? I wrote about a high profile example on my blog on Jan. 24, 2013–it was a blogger who used initials, but that was enough to identify the person. That case languished in the courts for several years.

  3. […] you know I’ve been working on a memoir.  If you missed it, you can read up here and here and here. In the early days, I was blogging little bits of the drafting. Most of that writing is not […]

  4. […] I’ve got another great guest post, this one from my fellow editor and writer April Line. She’s writing a memoir. And revising […]

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