Something I RememberA couple weeks ago took part in a panel discussion about memoir writing. A big concern of the audience had to do with being honest and naming names. I think the answers we gave were adequate, but I’ve been thinking about them off and on ever since.

First be as honest as you can even if what you write makes you cringe either because of what you did, said, or thought or because of something someone else did or said. Don’t sugarcoat it. Also don’t say things you never said or write about things you did, that you didn’t really do. That’s for fiction, not memoir.

I believe most of us have found ourselves going over the things we should have said or should have done. Hours after a confrontation we think of the clever turn of phrase we should have used rather than the one we used. In your memoir write the one you used, not the one you think you should have used. Don’t paint yourself to be better, wittier, and cleverer than you actually are. There’s a good chance your reader will recognize your fabrication and will think you’re actually a terrific bore or a twit.

The beauty of a memoir is in its humanity showing the truth for what it is or was in a very down to earth way.

As for using the names of the people involved in your memoir, there are times when using the actual name will not be a concern and there are other times when it might be better if you did not use their real name. I have a simple rule that I use: If the person is dead and most of what I have to say about him/her is good, I don’t worry about it, otherwise I use a fictitious name. If the person is alive I ask them if it’s okay for me to name them. If they say no or if I don’t ask their permission, I use a fictitious name. The real name of the person is rarely as important as the story I want to tell. Fictitious names are indicated with an asterisk in this way: * (name changed to protect).

In her post entitled Memoir: Do I Use Their Real Names?, Nomi Isak offers these suggestions:

  1.  Write your first draft exactly as it happened, using all real names and places.You (like most writers) already battle with enough resistance and procrastination when trying to write; don’t make it worse by censoring yourself.  The best way to write a first draft is to remove all censorship and pour it out onto the page.  Save the editing and decision making for a later draft.

  2.  Wait until you’re ready to sit down to your second draft (or third or fourth) to decide what you’re going to do about the name issue.After completing the first draft or two, you might have more clarity on the pros and cons of using real names.

  3.  Before publishing your memoir, get feedback from others and, if necessary, consult an attorney.  We’re often far too close to our own writing (and our own story) to see it clearly.  Hire an editor or enlist a trusted friend (trusted to be kind, but also to tell the truth) and ask her how she thinks you’ve portrayed a particular character.  You might be surprised.  Perhaps you think you’ve written Uncle Saul as a complete ogre, while your editor or friend finds him endearing.  Regardless of how you have portrayed the people in your memoir, if you use real names, or if the characters are otherwise recognizable, you may need to get signed permissions.

If Uncle Saul really does come off as a complete putz, you probably will want to change his name, and you may even need to alter recognizable traits or story elements.  This is where an attorney well-versed in publishing could come in handy.  If you have the good fortune to have sold your book to a publishing house, their legal department will take care of that part, vetting the manuscript before it goes to press.

Even if you paint a character in a glowing light, it’s not a bad idea to have a conversation with him before publication, and be willing to show him the scenes in which he appears.

Whatever feedback or advice you get, in the end you’re the one who has to live with the decision and its consequences.  Remember, too, that you have the option to use some real names and some pseudonyms.  You can explain that choice in a disclaimer at the beginning of your book.  The disclaimer language goes something like this:

The stories in this book reflect the author’s recollection of events.  Some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of those depicted.  Dialogue has been re-created from memory.

Also, you might want to click this link to some books about memoir writing.

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