Facts or Friction: If you are writing a non-fiction book, particularly a memoir, you are likely to worry at some point about how you are treating others in your story. Your concern may be:
- Legal (Will I be sued?)
- Moral (Am I being fair? Am I injuring someone? Am I creating problems for someone?)
- Emotional (Will this harm my relationship with someone?)
- Professional (Am I correct? Am I accurate? Is my memory flawed?)
I had to face these questions when I wrote my own memoir (From Rome to Jerusalem: A Non-Jew on the Way). In my case, the questions came up early. Answering them helped me write most of the book.
My first step was to decide on my basic principle. I realized I couldn’t very well avoid involving others in my story. On the other hand, I realized my mission was to tell my story, not someone else’s. My memoir had to be about my side of the street—not that of my family members, friends, or business associates.
From this general principle, I was able decide the specifics—which people, names, and details to include; and which names and details to change or eliminate. Sometimes I referred to a person without naming him or her, sometimes by a first name, sometimes by a pseudonym. I tried to avoid putting others in a bad light. Far from whitewashing my story, it put the onus on me and gave the book a confessional quality. “Wow, you were a bit of a bastard,” my wife said after finishing the book. I may have overreached, but I didn’t mind.
These decisions worked for me, but they may not be appropriate for you. However, my experience leads me to make some procedural suggestions for you.
- Decide when to decide: I addressed the issue of how to treat others before I began writing the book. This will not work for all authors, maybe not even for most authors. Writing a memoir is a challenge: putting restrictions on your writing from the get-go may prevent you from getting the stories out of your head and into your computer. If writing your story is therapeutic, perhaps because of abuse by others, it might be better to get your stories into draft form—and then worry about how to handle your treatment of others.
- Decide on the purpose of your memoir: Is it therapeutic for you? Is it therapeutic for others in similar situations? Is it about settling scores? Is it about telling your story—or the story of others?
- Decide on the importance of the others in your story: In some memoirs, the “others” are a critical element of the story. If the others in your story are well known to your core readers, you may not be able to avoid writing about them. For example, if you are writing a memoir for your family, you can hardly avoid talking about your parents, your spouse, or your children. On the other extreme, if you are well known and the others in your story are well known, it may be hard to avoid talking about them. For example, if you are the president of the United States and you are writing about your term in office, you can hardly avoid talking about world leaders, cabinet officials, members of Congress, and so on. In other cases, your readers may not need to know the exact details about some of the characters in your story or have any interest in identifying them. This can be true even if the characters in your story play major roles, be they heroes or villains.
- Get trusted feedback: Once you have written a draft that has all the content you want, ask someone you trust to read your manuscript specifically looking at your treatment of others. Where is there unnecessary detail? Where are you telling too much? Where do you need to show less emotion? Or more emotions? If you think you may be at legal risk, you should talk to a lawyer.
- Decide on tactics for protecting others (and yourself) in your story: Tactics include changing names, details, and eliminating passages. Sometimes you can change the facts and get closer to the truth. Seriously. –The Publishing Pro.