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Gigi Will Know: How far can a memoirist go when writing about real people?

"What is your advice on rules, experiences, and court cases concerning how far a memoir writer can go writing about other real people who are a part of the story?"

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Have a query about craft? Need some clarification on an aspect of the publishing industry? Looking for career advice? Email your queries to [email protected] with the subject line “Advice Column.” We can’t wait to read your questions!

 

Dear Gigi, 

What is your advice on rules, experiences, and court cases concerning how far a memoir writer can go writing about other real people who are a part of the story?

Thanks a lot, 

—Swimming in Memories

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Dear Swimming,

I’m not a lawyer, so I’m going to stay away from the “court cases” part of your query and address the “rules and experiences” part of this. Reading between the lines, I’m going to assume that you are wanting to write a memoir, but you’re worried about getting the pants sued off of you. This is completely understandable, but since you’ve gone there pretty much right away in your query to me, I also think it’s a good idea to ask yourself if you’re considering writing this memoir for the right reasons. 

(Generally, memoirs are there so that the writer can work their way through one thing or another, can process an event or a string of events. If you’re wanting to write a memoir, say, out of revenge or out of spite, let me gently suggest that you might need some more time to process for yourself before you can commit to sharing it with the world at large.)

OK. Rules and experiences. Here is what I know. If a writer is crystal clear about the fact that a memoir represents their memory of the experience, and that everything follows from that – all the emotions, the way we view people, so on and so forth – then they should be OK. 

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Sounds simple, right? As easy as a disclaimer. Yeah, sure. But it requires a little more emotional rigor than that. It requires admitting to ourselves that maybe our memories aren’t the only ones out there. That our memories may be fallible. In other words, it requires humility. 

And that, my love, does not always come naturally to writers. 

OK, sorry, I got distracted. Practical advice: If you can, you need to let folks who are key players know you’re working on a memoir and that it includes them. This doesn’t include letting them read it before it goes to press or anything like that, but it’s a good courtesy to exercise. 

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Your question was specifically about “how far you can go.” You should tell the truth insofar as you remember it and insofar as that person’s story affects the story you are trying to tell. But this goes back to the question of what you’re writing and why you’re writing it. If you’re just indulging in idle gossip, you need to go back to the drawing board. 

More practical advice: You can always resort to pseudonyms, although they only go so far. 

Remember sharply and well,

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—Gigi

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