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What if My Memoir Can Hurt Others?

Mary Beth asked, in a recent comment in response to my blog post Too Painful To Write:

“I know that some day I will write a book that will help ME, but I’m terrified that people reading this book would be very hurt by it.  Just by telling my story from my point of view, people may feel that they aren’t potrayed in the best light. How do you be true to your feelings and not hurt the people that are a part of your life now or were a part of your life in the past?”

There is no easy answer to this question, but here’s your writing coach’s advice:

1. Write the book true to yourself. You can always decide to withhold some information later–but start out with your most powerful truth.

2.  Weigh your decision. When it is time to decide, ask yourself how important certain details are to the story. Perhaps you can soften or leave out those details that don’t move the story along and would hurt others. Some “truths” may be very important to the story, in those cases, see number 3…

3. Communicate. Talk to those people you portray in the book. Let them know ahead of time if their “appearance” is not negotiable. Yet, let them know you’re contacting them first so that they’re not surprised by what they see in the book. Perhaps you do want to give them the opportunity to suggest a middle ground–but perhaps not.

4.  Be clear of your subjectivity. You can begin your book with a note to the reader stating that this book is about your recollection and perspective, and that you don’t hold a patent on the truth. Acknowledge that others may see a situation very differently.

5. Talk it over with an objective colleague, mentor or writing coach. It may help to discuss your dilemma with someone who’s not involved in the situation. They may shed some light on an issue that may be too close to home to weigh.

Of course, you also have the option of publishing your book as fiction. In general, fiction is harder to sell and I don’t know how much it would truly protect anyone’s feelings, as they may still see themselves in the characters.

Recently a writing coaching client of mine mentioned a friend of hers whose memoir was published and shocked the author’s family members. This author had not let anyone know the details of the book ahead of time. Her family read sensitive information about themselves at the same time the press and the public received it. Now, that is a recipe for disaster in terms of relationships.

You’re walking a fine line of being true to yourself and your story and being sensitive to those who love. There’s no pat answer, but, as a writing coach, my instinct is this: if you keep asking the questions you’re asking, I think you’ll find your way just fine, Mary Beth.

Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener is an award-winning book writing coach who assists writers in all aspects of the writing process—from writing a book proposal and getting published to finding one’s creative voice. Her clients have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Montel Williams Show, CNN, Fox News, New Morning and much more. They blog on sites like The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and WebMD.

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Comments

  1. Linda Joy says

    Mary Beth, your question hit home for me! I’ve had many requests over the years to share my story but in doing so it could reopen a lot of pain for others.

    Lisa, I love the advice you gave ‘Perhaps you can soften or leave out those details that don’t move the story along and would hurt others. Some “truths” may be very important to the story,….

    For me, it is the ‘intention’ behind sharing my story that keeps me focused …

    Good luck Mary Beth

  2. Mel Menzies says

    I had to face this question of integrity when writing my latest book, A Painful Post Mortem. I knew from the start that I wanted it to be fiction and that I wanted the core story to be recalled in the memories and dialogue of the characters – hence the title. Despite having a number of books published, one a Sunday Times No. 4 Bestseller, none of my publishers, Hodder & Stoughton, Lion and others, agreed. They wanted a ‘real life’ book, and for the story to be told from the beginning to the end. So I had to find other means.

    Although the characters and much of the narrative is fiction, the core story is of my daughter’s death (in suspicious circumstances) and the quest to prove that she was not a drug addict at the time of her death. She desperately wanted her story told during her lifetimes – a story of triumph – but it has taken me fourteen years since her death to summon the courage to do it.

    My main worry was about protecting my family, living and dead. But I’m so glad I went ahead. I’ve had letters from people who have been so helped by the story – notably, one from a young woman facing death within the year whilst 24 weeks pregnant. Now there’s a story worth telling!

    I agree with all that Lisa has said. But if your intention is to help others, Mary Beth, find a way to go ahead without losing your integrity. The world is too full of hopelessness. My mantra is: to bring hope to the hurting.

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