This question comes up in one form or another in every memoir and lifestory class I teach. Everyone hopes for stone tablet truth to guide them, but alas, there are no hard and fast rules. But take hope and use these tips to guide your decisions:
1) Write privately first.
It’s therapeutic to get angry feelings on the page, out in the open where you can see them. Sometimes simply writing the reasons for your rage focuses it, and the reasons may look ridiculous or blown out of proportion. Perhaps that’s enough and you can burn, shred or delete the words and all will be well.
If it isn’t well, think care-fully before sharing your thoughts lest you cause greater damage to self or others, or paint yourself into an unforeseen corner or difficult situation. I speak here of rage, but other emotions can be equally volatile. You can’t always know how others will hear or understand.
2) Go to the balcony.
The idea in this concept borrowed from negotiation texts is to rise above the situation and consider the points of view of all concerned in any conflict, misunderstanding, or emotional events. There is always another side to any story. Simply making the effort to look at other points of vies may change the way you see things.
3) Write from compassion rather than revenge.
Nobody wants to read whining stories, and those simply point fingers and write from a victim’s point of view are likely to be set aside rather soon. You may not understand why a person committed an evil or hurtful act, but whether it’s an “external” event such as failure to repay a loan, or an “internal” one like betrayal of trust, physical or emotional abuse, or other forms of pain, simply state what happened and how it affected you. Skip the name calling and judging. That will not gain you sympathy or credibility with readers, nor will it improve your state of mind and mental health. Give them the benefit of the doubt if you can and express empathy.
4) Get guidance from others.
Ask a trusted friend or writing group if your story is too judgmental or likely to cause pain to someone you care about – or worse yet, provoke legal complications. Ultimately it has to be your decision, but these advisers can help you tone things down or make decisions about certain story elements you may do well to omit.
5) Ask permission.
Many memoir writers mention somewhere in their books that they showed their draft to parents or others who may be offended or hurt by the material. They encountered surprisingly few objections. Requests for changes were often about things the author never would have expected.
However, do realize that their consent is no guarantee that no feelings will be hurt. For a variety of reasons, people may agree to allow you to publish something that actually is hurtful. To minimize this possibility, go back up the list to the point about compassion. Hopefully if you relationship is healthy enough that you were able to ask, you have come to the point of understanding and forgiveness, and expressing that that will surely blunt the pain for the offenders as well as gaining you points with readers.
6) Change names and details.
People who know you will probably know who you are writing about, but far fewer than if you use real names.
7) Write fiction.
You may have heard the adage, “All stories are true, some stories happened.” Some truth is best and most safely expressed in fiction.
Write now: write a personal essay on your feelings about showing other people’s warts and wrinkles in published stories. You may have someone specific in mind, or you may write more generally about people you once knew who are unlikely to ever read your story, but if they learned about it could be embarrassed.
Photo credit: Quinn Dombrowsky