Writing a Memoir: I Told the Truth…Now What?

My eavesdropping knew no bounds growing up. I pretty much stalked my older sister’s every move. I hid behind bushes, picked the lock to her diary, and listened in on phone calls.  It didn’t take much coercing from my parents to expose the details of my sisters life. Standing before them I would say “I cannot tell a lie.” The problem is, they hadn’t asked me anything.

In a very creepy way, I was trying to protect her. However, all of my ratting came at a price. Usually, in the form of a beat down—forcing me to constantly look over my shoulder. What hurt worse than a gut punch, was social isolation. No one, especially my sister, wanted anything to do with me and for a good reason: snitches are troublesome. And thirty years later, I’m at it again.

I can’t get over my families reaction to me writing a book, even though I openly worked on it for two years. They seem bewildered that I actually published it. During the discovery process, I interviewed my parents for their personal stories and family history. Mom and Dad willingly gave up information about their childhood and relationship.

Earlier this year, after announcing that I was finished, my Mom said “I hope you didn’t talk about me in your book!”

An unsettling feeling began to well inside of me. Did I underestimate my family’s power to say no? I know what you’re thinking. No, I did not get my family to sign waivers. It’s my family for crying out loud. They’re stuck loving me unconditionally no matter how bad I screw up. Regardless, my heart pounded at an increasingly rapid pace.

“Mama,” I said, “what do you think I’ve been doing for the last two years?”

“Yeah, but you didn’t get my permission to tell my personal story,” she retorted. I refused to believe that I just spent that last two years, putting all of my eggs in one basket.

“What do you think I was interviewing you for?” I asked.

Mom shouted “Mari, I don’t want to be in your book!”

This news came in only hours before the book was due to go to press. “Are you nuts,” I shouted back!

To make matters worse, I received a text from my brother who wanted to know if he was getting paid to be mentioned.

I boldly responded “No!” “Well, don’t put me or my name in your book because it’s all heresy,” he demanded.

The moment I chose to dedicate my life to professional writing, I relinquished my right to privacy. However, I gained something more in return—personal freedom. I can be as transparent as my heart desires and not give a rat’s behind about what other’s think. I’m in control of the platform I use, and how much I choose to share.  On the other hand, I can’t expect my loved ones to be about the life I chose.

My mother had me by the cojones. I mean, if I had cojones. I wasn’t worried too much about my brother since he let me know, he could be bought. There is no way to write a biography without mentioning the people that shaped your character and added dimension to your very existence.

Some of the many problems you’ll run into as you tackle writing your memoir is privacy invasion and libel. People often get libel and slander confused or use them interchangeably. Libel is written or published defamation, not to be confused slander, which is oral defamation.

Maliciously publishing private information about a person—whether it’s true or not—that negatively impacts their life makes it libelous. It’s the intent behind the action. Of course, it has to be proven that the intent was malicious or that the statements were false. Most libel cases take years to be heard. Defamation and civil claims usually settle out of court, if the plaintiff has substantive evidence that malice was used and it harmed them in some way. For example, not being able to earn money or enter public spaces without stirring a reaction.

What about freedom of speech?

Ha! Nothing is free. All risks come with a price. However, opinion is protected speech. But, that puts memoirists in a gray area. A memoir is presumably based on factual information. To steer clear from lawsuits you must remain neutral when sharing stories that involve other people. Writing from a neutral standpoint takes a lot of finesse.  Let the audience come to their own conclusion about the character rather than you telling them how to feel.

Some authors opt to change names to avoid push back. In the world of non-fiction writing, publishing anything other than the actual, factual truth is sacrilegious.

Weeks prior to finishing my book, I met a lady named Linda, in the nail shop, who recently published a biography. She shared her writing and self-publishing growing pangs. I hung on to her every word to avoid falling down a rabbit hole. A friend pressured her into revealing names of characters involved in sensitive situations. When Linda opposed it, she accused her not being a ‘real’ author because real authors use actual characters.

I don’t think people understand an authors imposition. It’s a fact of life that things happen. Some of those events we’d like to forget. We don’t all heal the same, grow at the same pace, or get over the issues of our past. Just because I’ve come to a place of truth, doesn’t mean friends and family are ready to embrace it.

Despite the pressure Linda received, she published under a pseudonym, used middle names, and avoided surnames. She said “Me choosing not to reveal a character’s real name isn’t going to make or break the story. Besides, the audience won’t know if the name is real or changed.” If you care about the people in your story, never second guess protecting them.

I took her advice and either altered a name, didn’t disclose  a name, or used middle names.  I only used real names when sharing a funny or neutral story that wasn’t defaming. Another way to avoid invading someone’s privacy is publishing after character’s have died. Actually, I read that somewhere. Deceased people have  no rights. And no, family can’t claim the rights of a deceased person. That’s why when celebrities pass away, people rush to publish books about that person.

Getting written permission or waivers is the ethical and safe way to go. However, sometimes it’s just not possible. The bottom line is, there are ways to write freely, without fear. You can’t write artistically being overly concerned with other people’s feelings. You also shouldn’t put your ego before any relationship. It’s just not worth it. Did I chose to change names? Yes.  Am I still an author? Yes.

Live. Bless. Prosper.


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