Writing your memoirs is a tricky thing. You peel back the layers of your life and reveal potentially devastating information about your past. Your memoir may focus on your happy childhood or a long-lost romance. But it is just as likely you are talking about a traumatic or unhappy past. There are privacy and legal concerns with both types of memoirs.
Effect on Others in the World
While you may find it cathartic to write about your past, others may not. Even if you write about another person in glowing terms, they may feel uncomfortable being mentioned in your book. Perhaps they’ve put their own past behind them, or they don’t want to be recognized and asked about your story. If writing your memoir includes writing about wrongs committed or unhappiness, others will be even more resistant.
Writing about an incident that traumatized you can help you regain control of your life. However, for those you write about, the opposite may be true. It is necessary to include these stories in some cases, but be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. You need to be comfortable with the effect writing your memoirs has on others.
Writers rarely get sued over what they write because they have the First Amendment right to free speech. According to Amy Cook, an attorney specializing in publishing issues and defamation, “Writers don’t get sued very often—and thanks to the First Amendment, even when they do, they usually prevail.” (Writer’s Digest) Defamation and invasion of privacy are the two main concerns. Understanding them can guide you while writing your memoirs.
Defamation is any injury to an individual’s reputation. If you write something that lowers someone’s standing in their community or impacts the way others relate to them, it is defamation. If you write about someone who has already passed away, you are protected. An individual’s heirs or estate can’t sue for defamation.
The person you write about must prove that readers will recognize them in your book. Change names, physical appearance, and other details when writing about someone. Truth is also a defense. If you can prove that someone did something illegal or wrong, you can’t be sued for defamation. Your feelings about a person, which are not facts but opinions, are protected.
Invasion of Privacy
Like defamation, only the living can sue for invasion of privacy, defined as “revealing private facts not related to public concern.” When writing your memoirs, keep in mind you are telling YOUR story. Including incidents involving others should further your account. Adding juicy tidbits that aren’t relevant but reveal private information for no purpose other than to harm someone or to thrill your audience isn’t a good idea. If it invades someone’s privacy, change the details so that the story is truthful, but privacy is protected.
Writing Your Memoirs Truthfully: The Best Protection
Sharing your story is important, so don’t be discouraged by privacy or legal concerns. The most important thing is to be truthful. To protect others, keep these tips in mind:
- When you write about someone negatively, change details to maintain their privacy.
- Don’t include embarrassing or offensive tales that aren’t important to your story.
- Include a disclaimer in your memoir that clearly states your story is your memory of events, that you are relating them in good faith, and that you have changed names or created combined characters.
- Talk to your publisher about any concerns. Also, be sure to discuss your memoirs with an attorney versed in these issues.
- Consult attorney Amy Cook’s quick checklist for legal issues regarding memoirs as a starting point, then talk to your publisher about any gray areas.
Give Others Input
While it may not be possible to ask permission from someone featured in your memoir negatively, you should make sure you give as many characters as possible the chance to discuss their concerns. Even if you describe your brother as your champion, he may feel uncomfortable with specific stories you relay in your memoirs. Negotiate how much to reveal. It is a balancing act between your story’s integrity and what you are willing to leave out for those you love or respect.
The “Right Reasons” Test
Apply the “right reasons” test. Are you writing your memoirs to tell a story that could inspire others? Or are you writing a “revenge memoir”? Writing your memoir is about your personal journey and how it created the person you are today. It isn’t about punishing the people who hurt you. Write your memoirs with an eye toward clarifying your own role in the world. Do not write to write to destroy someone else.
Only you can make the final decision about how much to include or leave out when writing your memoirs. If you keep in mind that you are the focus of the story and stick to what is relevant, you are on the right track.
Dudley Court Press
Dudley Court Press works with writers like you every day. As a full-service, hybrid publishing house, we help thoughtful people write their books and achieve publishing success. Contact us to discuss our assisted self-publishing option today.
For more information, including about DCP’s latest programs, please get in touch at +1-520-329-2729 or publisher@DudleyCourtPress.com. We’ve recently launched our latest program, Memoir Writing for Non-Writers. This comprehensive, 10-week course helps you turn your memories into a compelling memoir!