Linda Joy and I talk incessantly about permission-giving when it comes to writing memoir. It’s one of the most important things writers of memoir need to allow themselves in order to write. Many writers who want to write memoir find themselves stuck right out the gate, grappling with voices both internal and external: Who gives you the right to write that? What if that’s not how it really happened? You’re not supposed to talk about your family that way. We’ve both heard these messages and countless others in our years of working with memoirists.
In the past several years there have been a number of memoir scandals, too, adding fuel to the fire of controversy about how much of a memoir needs to be true, or if there’s any creative leeway at all. Publishers have taken these scandals seriously, and books have been pulled from shelves. Entire print runs have been pulped. Public apologies have been made. Readers have been refunded. And yet, the majority of memoirs today are still not vetted. Publishers generally trust that their authors are telling the truth. Depending on the sensitivity of the subject matter at hand, waivers are issued and the parties who’ve been written about may change a few lines, or ask that things be cut.
I worked on a memoir at Seal that involved a scene with a journalist and photographer from a major newspaper. After the author sent them the page proofs, along with the standard waiver, we (the publisher) got a cease and desist letter from the newspaper’s lawyer, with severe criticisms about the way in which their employees had been represented, or misrepresented. They took issue with the dialogue specifically, insisting it was inaccurate.
The odd thing about this incident was that the newspaper didn’t look bad. It’s hard to know from their perspective what specifically triggered such a strong response. My guess is that, with all the uproar about accuracy in memoir, they felt anything short of a perfect representation would have been grounds for a cease and desist letter. But I would argue that a perfect representation doesn’t exist. It is impossible to remember, verbatim, dialogue that happened yesterday, not to mention last year, or ten years ago, or from your childhood.
Publishers have taken to adding disclaimers in memoir for the purpose of protection on the one hand, and simple transparency on the other. I have never worked on a memoir that I truly believed to be 100 percent “true.” Because truth is subjective. I know and am okay with the notion that memoirs are creative works. They are not fiction. The events that transpired need to have happened. I do think falsification of events in memoir is a big problem. But the interpretation of events that did happen are necessarily told through the lens of perspective, memory, and experience.
For those of you struggling with memory, or your version of the truth, I encourage you to just write. Let what wants to come out come out. Most writers are most worried about what their families will think. They’re worried that someone—a sibling, a parent, a cousin—will dispute their version of the truth. In all likelihood, this will happen, and as you get closer to publication, you might have some decisions to make around ways you can lessen the impact or protect yourself from these people.
Ultimately, not writing your truth because of what others might say is a recipe for not writing. Don’t let those voices control what you write or how you express yourself. Don’t let those voices discount your experience, or make you temper your truth. There are rules around changing details and characteristics of your “characters.” You can give them a different color of hair, make them a different height, give them a different job. But at the end of the day, if they’re related to you, they’re probably going to know who they are.
If you’re writing something controversial, or something that uncovers a truth that’s been long hidden or expressly forbidden, it’s likely that some people are going to be upset with you for wanting to write about it. When you’re just starting your book, all you can do is take deep breaths and tend to your writing. Inviting the outside voices—what Linda Joy calls the “outer critic”—into your writing is handing over your power. They don’t get a seat at the table. It’s your time to tell what happened, to write your story, to share your version of the truth, and to be okay with what your writing being a version of the truth. Your truth.