Given the remarkable interest from Writing.ie readers in the writing of memoir, we decided to re-publish this excellent series of articles from the authors of The Accidental Memoir, Eve Makis and Anthony Cropper.
All writers strive to make their writing authentic. To make their dialogue, characters and situations real to the reader, believable. Memoir is real (while acknowledging that memory is fallible) so hard work done, right? Well, not quite. Making your writing authentic, bringing it to life, still needs close attention and effort.
Fiction writers don’t always know how it feels to have experienced a particular situation and draw on their imagination to write about a character’s internal landscape. You don’t need to imagine. You’ve lived your life, experienced the up and downs, you know exactly how it felt to be there. Remember to describe your emotional response – to marriage breakup or the end of a close friendship, the first day of school. What did you feel deep in your gut, how was your health affected in the long or short term. Give your writing emotional authenticity by drawing on your raw emotions at the time, writing from the heart as well as the head.
You’ll be writing about things you’ve experienced first hand but may not remember entirely. Graduation was years ago and your memory isn’t what it used to be. If you can’t quite remember a name, a place, the date, ask someone, a relative or friend, research online, access newspaper cuttings, go the local history section of your local bookshop, climb in to the attic and dig out those relevant documents or photos that confirm your hazy recollections. Don’t cut corners or rely on guesswork. Research thoroughly to give your work factual authenticity.
You will obviously be including real people in your memoir, people who may or may not be closely related to you. This can be tricky, if these people are portrayed unsympathetically as in the case of a misery memoir. You could face accusations of defamation and find yourself in court. What’s defamation? It’s making a false statement presented as fact that causes injury or damage to the character of the person it’s about.
Ways to avoid causing upset and possible litigation:
Check your facts. Memory and truth don’t always go hand in hand. Make absolutely certain of the facts and don’t print untruths to be vindictive. Avoid exaggeration unless you’re a humourist like David Sedaris whose autobiographical works are embellished to maximize comic effect. You can only be sued for defamation if your memoir makes false claims and it’s proved you meant to cause damage.
Disguise identities. Change names, genders, professions, ages to disguise the identity of people you’re worried about offending. Start by writing what happened, how it happened and who took part in the events before changing the details. The writer, Kelly Kittell, didn’t hold back when she wrote her memoir about familial strife, Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief and Family Conflict. She knew exactly what she stood to lose by naming names.
Ask permission. If you don’t want relationships to break down, if you aren’t sure how family or friends will react then let them read the final draft. You might just find they’re flattered. You could ask them to sign a waiver before approaching a publisher. Karl Ove Knausgaard choose to write his truth about family and friends in six bestselling books regardless of the consequences, provoking legal action and even death threats.
Seek advice. From a lawyer and/or editor. Defamation laws differ from country to country so you may need specialist advice. Acquaint yourself with the law and then decide how you want to proceed, what risks you’re willing to take.
Don’t publish. You can’t be sued unless you publish. You’re entitled to write whatever you wish and keep it on your laptap or in a notebook. If it’s memoir writing for the sake of catharsis than write as you remember, the good, the bad and the ugly memories.
Invasion of privacy. Even if the facts are completely true you can be sued for invasion of privacy – intruding on someone’s life, putting them in the spotlight. Usually, public figures are not protected by this law so if you’re making claims about someone in the public eye, and/or in the public interest, you should be safe from litigation.
Evidence. If you have evidence to back up your revelations, if what happened is a matter of public record, then you should be OK. Consider doing some detective work to find the evidence – eg police and court records if you’re accusing someone of criminal activity.
Tone. Is all important. What you write might be damning but the way you write it might take away the sting. If you’re even-handed, for example, seeing a situation from both sides. Why did you mother behave the way she did? Are their mitigating circumstances? Work on tone, on making the content and style a reflection of your personality, your sense of humour, your empathy and intellect, who you are.
Offence test. Not sure if you’ll cause offence by what you’ve written? Imagine the person you’ve written about is your sister, brother, parent. Would they be offended? If the answer’s yes, then decide whether you actually need this person in your memoir. If not. Leave them out.
In reality, writers are rarely sued so don’t be deterred from writing the truth, of telling your story as you’ve lived it
(c) Eve Makis and Anthony Cropper
For more advice on Starting Off, see here.
For more advice on Structure, see here.
About The Accidental Memoir:
The Accidental Memoir truly is for all: writers and non-writers, teachers and students, the perfect book for anyone seeking inspiration or imaginative ways to explore their own life story.
The story of you.
The Accidental Memoir takes you on a journey of self-discovery, from the origins of your family name and earliest memories, to what you’d invent and how you’d change the world. This beautifully illustrated book is filled with inventive and accessible writing prompts, as well as tips for anyone wanting to document their lives and explore their creativity.
Want to flex your writing muscles, exorcise your demons, relive moments of magic, make sense of life, have fun and leave a lasting legacy? The Accidental Memoir will show you how.
This innovative concept was developed as an Arts Council project to help people tap into their own lives. Working with diverse groups from refugees to the elderly and prisoners, it has been a resounding success in unearthing stories that otherwise may never have been told.
Order your copy online here.