As it turns out, May 16th is National Biographer’s Day and May 18th is National Relatives Day. I thought combining these two holidays would make a good subject for today’s blog.Ironically, tomorrow I will be visiting my family in New York to celebrate my son’s 21st birthday – so I’m doing exactly what Wikipedia says I should do—visiting relatives!
As a memoirist, the challenges of writing about family are constantly present. Many of my students who write memoir often express their fear of being sued. According to Judith Barrington in her book, Writing the Memoir, the chances of being sued are extremely low. For the most part, suing someone is extremely expensive. Plus most people w considering the process might not want to bring any further attention to a potentially-embarrassing situation.
The dilemma for the writer is having the desire to do justice to their families, but also wanting to write a compelling story. The fact is, drama sells. A humor columnist friend of mine who frequently writes anecdotes about his wife or married life, clears his short pieces with her first. He is both wise and sensible to do this. It’s good to allow family members to review your writing prior to publication. Not only does it allow you to face your family with peace of mind, but it can also solicit an additional perspective which might also even strengthen your story.
No doubt, the most interesting characters are those who are spirited and who are willing and able to create conflict, the essential element that keeps a story compelling. There are three types of conflict—conflict within the individual, conflict between individuals and conflict between an individual and society. The odds are that if your story doesn’t contain some type of conflict, either you don’t yet have a story or it will be a boring one.
If you are driven to write about family and fiction is not an option for you, then you must know your limits and boundaries within the world of nonfiction. There are three important things to remember: be as honest as you can, fact check, and preserve other people’s privacy. In any event, here are some terms you should be familiar with:
Defamation: This is damage to someone’s reputation, which includes damaging statements that are either slander (spoken) or libel (written).
Libel: This is being accused that a published statement is untrue. This can only be done by a living person. One way to avoid this charge is to alter character name, especially if you are saying something which can embarrass or invade a person’s sense of privacy.
Invasion of privacy: This is writing something about someone which they don’t want published and then sharing it publicly. This can include embarrassing, personal or misleading facts about a person which you might be obtained from a third party.
Copyright: Most writers are familiar with this infringement, but one thing I recently learned was that letters are copyrighted the second they are written, and that you cannot publish a letter without their permission.
Indeed, there are rewards when writing about family. You might have access to fascinating stories and details which could really sell and might not otherwise make their way out into the world. But, it’s important to be cautious and keep the following in mind:
Set boundaries for yourself; allow anyone mentioned in your writing to review the material and honor the fact that people are entitled to their privacy.