imagesEvery time I go to a book reading for memoir, the question of what’s “true” invariably surfaces in one form or another. It’s generally posed by another aspiring memoirist in the audience who wants to know how to handle their own struggle with memory, or desire or need to protect someone in their family, or fear of getting sued.

Due to the fact that we’ve witnessed some pretty big blowouts around falsified memoirs in the past decade, it’s understandable that people feel some apprehension on the topic of truth. But my feeling is that most writers in this genre are more concerned than they need to be.

Here’s a short round-up of things memoirists do that are not the same as lying:

1. Omit
Sometimes you choose to omit to protect someone you love. You may decide that it’s not worth it to include a particular detail about a family member, because you know it will result in fallout. I’ve known memoirists who’ve slept with very famous people, and have chosen not to write about it for fear of repercussions. There are a million reasons to omit people, experiences, and scenes from your memoir. And there is nothing dishonest about it. Trust your gut on this one.

2. Create composites
Composites come in the form of characters and scenes. You may need to do a composite character to further a story along. For instance, you may have seven aunts and the reader cannot be bothered to be introduced to all of these characters. You may have moved around a lot as a kid, and therefore condense a few towns into one. You may care to showcase certain qualities about friends you grew up with and so you draw inspiration from three friends to create a single character. All of this is legit. It is not lying, and most good memoir requires composites so you don’t bore your reader to tears with extraneous detail.

3. Changing details
You may change details, again, to protect people, or mask their identities. This is usual necessary. Publishers may ask or require you to do this. This may entail changing someone’s hair and eye color, where they were from, their name, their job. The idea here is that the person you’re writing about not be recognizable to those who might know them, even if they’re recognizable to themselves. This is simply good practice, and unless you are 100% sure that the person you’re writing about is 100% cool with you writing about them, you want to change identifiers and names. It’s not lying; it’s just smart.

4. Fill in holes
No one has a perfect memory of all the details of everything they ever experienced in their life. One memoirist I worked with said in response to the criticism that she made up dialogue, “Well, yes, I didn’t walk around during that time with a tape recorder to capture all my conversations.” The point was, it was the gist of what she remembered. And this is all that matters. If you hold yourself to too high a standard where your memories are concerned, you will find yourself unable to move through your memory. I don’t care what memoirist claims to have a superhuman memory; you have to fill in the holes, and sometimes invent entire blocks of dialogue based on your best summation of how things mostly went down based on your recollection of events. And that’s good enough.

My ultimate goal when speaking to memoirist who have fears about lying is to lighten their load. It’s already tough to write memoir. Memoirists are already confronted with self-criticism up the wazoo, not to mention outside critics who go on and about how self-indulgent memoir is. I’ve worked on hundreds of memoirs over the course of my career, and I’ve only seen two authors threatened with lawsuits. One was from an institution that issued a cease and desist before the book went to publication and the author was able to change a small section of “offending” dialogue. The other was from a sibling, who had no legs to stand on when push came to shove. When you write your truth, you will most likely offend people. So hold fast and start slowly. Write for yourself. Protect yourself. And give yourself permission to omit, create composites, change details, and fill in holes.

Is there anything else you do or have done that you think should be on this list? I would love to hear about it.

20 Comments

  1. Must I have someone’s “written” permission in order to use their family’s name in my memoir? (It’s a positive and uplifting story!!) Also, if the story takes place in a small town, I can go ahead and use the actual name and not fictionalize that?
    Thanks!

    • It’s a good idea to have some sort of contract. If you were to make millions of dollars off their story, for instance, you better believe someone will come out of the woodwork to try to claim their piece. I would highly recommend you get on paper that they understand you’re writin their story and then some understanding of what will happen with the profits if there were to be any down the road. And yes, you can choose to use the town’s real name. You’re not required to fictionalize it. The reason to do so would be to protect people who live there, or who would recognize themselves or others because of the town’s name. Good luck!

  2. What about people who are primary characters in your memoir, who can’t be “disguised,” such as parents, siblings, husbands? Should you still try to disguise them anyway?

    • Good question. You can certainly change their names so that outside readers wouldn’t be able to Google them. But it’s true that they will know who they are if you identify them as a relation. How much you disguise them is dependent on how much you think they’ll be appreciate of that. If it makes no difference to them then you don’t need to change identifying details about them.

  3. Thank you for this post, Brooke. As a trained journalist who is now publishing a memoir, I find this reassuring. In j-school, fact and “objectivity” we’re revered above all, so I had to get over my guilt about things like recreating dialog. I do believe you can go too far with “filling in holes,” but I think as long as you are staying true to the essence of your story, you are in creative non-fiction land.

  4. Thanks for these great points, Brooke! What are your thoughts about writing memoir as “Based on a True Story,” as in for example, “The Blind Side?”

    • Good question, Teri. Because these stories are “based on truth,” they don’t require to be the full truth. Screen writers take certain liberties and you see that these stories are “adapted,” so they are “mostly true.” The audience is then prepped for the fact that it’s mostly true. There aren’t too many good examples of this in literature. Recently there is Jeannette Walls’s Half-Broke Horses. There are some others. Then there’s these kinds of adaptations. Truman Copote’s In Cold Blood was an early example of this—based on truth but he certainly took liberties, including getting into the murderers’ heads.

  5. Thank you for this post today, Brooke! As I finish the proofread of my upcoming memoir, my heart has been racing because the closer it gets to the pub date the vulnerability piece amps up. I wrestled with changing the names of my hubby and kids, but landed on the real ones. I recognized that the reason my loved ones might like their names to be changed is because of the folks they know. Well, those folks will know who my hubby and kids are anyway ’cause my name is real! I did create an Author’s Note (stating that I have changed names, physical characteristics, etc.) that allowed for the privacy of my fellow moms which gave me the freedom to tell their stories. Thank you again for this encouraging post!

    • Good for you, Toni. And I’m so excited about the forthcoming release of THE GOODBYE YEAR. These decisions you talk about making are ones that memoirists really have to wrestle with. It sounds like you made the right choice. It is scary, though!

  6. Great post, Brooke. Before my memoir was published some years back, I contacted every major person I named in the book and sent them the pages where they appeared. I asked them to let me know if they had any problems with the material. I’m actually surprised that only one person asked me to change a sentence or two. I’m glad I contacted these people because I went into publication without dread. After the book came out, however, there were some letters from relatives of people mentioned who thought I’d unfairly portrayed them. Well, you can’t win them all!

    • This is amazing, Nan, and very generous of you. A good way to cover your bases, but also really opens you up to the potential of having to do a lot of rewriting to accommodate other people. I think you got lucky here. 🙂

  7. Where can I find a good example of a contract to have people sign that are in my memoir? My book includes two people who were on TV with me and have since been on national TV stemming from the night I wrote about. They’re very sensitive about “other people riding their coat tails,” but in a sense they are public figures having consented to be on TV and I don’t think any amount of changing their identities in the book would matter. They are also very key people in the book, so I can’t delete them. And, do they need to read the whole manuscript and approve it word for word? Or can you recommend a literary lawyer who may be able to better protect me if the need arises? Thanks, Brooke!

    • Hi Kathleen, here’s some “waiver” language for you to adapt:

      CONSENT, AUTHORIZATION, AND RELEASE

      I do hereby give and grant to the author, __________________, her agents and representatives, full right and permission to use, publish in such form as they shall deem appropriate, including book form, and to copyright same, the story as is presented in the author’s work, “TITLE.”

      By this consent and authorization, I do hereby release and forever discharge the author, her agents and representatives, from any and all claims arising out of their use of such material, including, without limitation, any claim of right of privacy, copyright, or any other claim of ownership or interest, or any claim arising out of the publication and circulation of such materials in book or other form.

      I have read this Consent, Authorization, and Release prior to signing same, and I fully understand it.

      Print Name: ______________________________________________________

      Signature: ______________________________________________________

      Date: ______________________________________________________

      Address: ______________________________________________________

      ______________________________________________________

      ______________________________________________________

      Email: ______________________________________________________

      Title: ______________________________________________________

      Institution/
      Organization: ______________________________________________________

      • Thanks, Brooke. If they want to read the book and pick it apart, how would you handle that? Hope you are great.

        • If they pick it apart you have to decide whether you’re willing to change your writing to satisfy them. You only need the contract if you are naming the person or if details about them are not sufficiently disguised. So you can further disguise them, or take into account their objections. But protect yourself. This is a courtesy, OR necessary if the people are clearly recognizable to others. Hopefully this clarifies.

  8. Thanks for a terrific and timely blog, Brooke. My memoir will be published this fall and I was looking for a release form for old friends who said “use my name” without contacting a lawyer. They charge as much as $800 an hour, I’m told. The story is set in the late 1950s, my teenage years. One of the main real-life characters is my first husband, who died about five years ago. I can’t really disguise him and hate to change his name. I write truthfully about our relationship, good and bad. He left a wife, from whom he was estranged, and three now-grown children. I have never had contact with them. What do you advise me to do in this situation? I’m near the end of my editing and proofreading right now.

    • As long as you don’t use their last names you really are fine on this count. And maybe you won’t even mention this other wife or the children? You were married to him and there’s no real way to disguise that. They might come after you and be angry and upset, but as long as you can handle that you are free to write about your experience. The only times people can sue is for libel or slander. If you’re just presenting what happened in your relationship to this man then you are within your right to do so. Is your last name his last name? I guess that’s the only hitch, but still not enough to change his name in my opinion.

      • Thanks for this, Brooke. I don’t use his last name and haven’t for over 40 years. I don’t mention the wife or kids or anything about that ex’s future life. They might be angry or upset, as you say, if they don’t like my portrayal, but that’s probably not unusual for authors. I greatly appreciate your advice.

Leave a Reply to Kathleeln Berry

Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Close