Write for the Love of it!
Things to Consider when Writing True Life Nonfiction
Glenna Mageau, Award Winning Author, Speaker, Writing Coach
Writing your memoirs or true life nonfiction or biography or an autobiography is amazing and is something that many people are doing. It really is a great exercise for anyone, however, when you are writing about true life events, situations and people, there are some things to consider. Unfortunately, if you aren’t careful there can be some legal ramifications.
Ask yourself a few questions:
1. Why do you want to write this real life story?
2. Who do you hope will read it?
3. What do you plan to do with it?
There is no right or wrong answer but it is always good to be clear on why you are writing this and what you hope to do with it.
Is what you are going to write potentially going to hurt someone else’s reputation? annoy them? anger them?
Might they take offense to this information being shared?
Stick to the Facts
When you write true life stories you need to make sure to stay to facts (and even that can cause you problems), be careful of inputting your opinion and not sharing something that is defamatory or that someone does not want the public to know.
Which is why it makes it incredibly dicey when writing your memoirs that will include stories about another person(s).
1. Do I need to include a lot of information about that person?
2. Is this information public knowledge already?
3. How much do I need to include?
4. Can I mask it enough that someone would not be able to identify that person?
You might need to change names and enough identifying details that the person you’re writing about could not be identified by it.
So instead of writing that it was your boss, you could write a neighbor who had a different profession and appeared differently.
Reasons to Write Your Memoirs
I think writing your memoirs is a good idea. It can be very cathartic and eye opening for you. It can really be beneficial to you to heal that which maybe you haven’t. It can also be very healing for others who have been through the same things or similar situations.
Nobody wants to be seen in a negative light in the media, in the public eye, well at least not having their dirty laundry aired and definitely not by someone else. Something you will need to understand, it isn’t how you see the situation, it’s how the other person believes it means they will be perceived. It might be something awful that the person did or it might be something that was you saw as funny, heart-warming… but if the person doesn’t want the public to know, you might have a problem.
It can then become a legal situation, which I don’t think any author wants to find themselves in.
But remember if someone doesn’t like what you have written, your fate might be decided by a court of law.
Write it as Fiction
An alternative to writing your true life story as a memoir is to write it as fiction. You can still tell the essence of the story but make it appear as a story rather than fact.
However there are still several things to consider:
1. change names of those involved
2. change the situation that it happened in
3. change the person’s or persons’ occupation
4. you might need to change the location… the age… the sex… what actually happened… who it happened to…
The truth is that even if you are writing it as fiction, you may need to mask it as much as you can. If the person can identify that this is about them and a situation that you are mentioning they were a part of, they can still try to sue you.
It really is a grey area.
As you’ve probably guessed this is a really grey area when it comes to writing memoirs and true life nonfiction. It’s not about how you see it, it’s about how the other person you are writing about sees it. If it is something they feel puts them in a negative light in the public’s eye or they don’t want others to know about it, you might have a problem.
Don’t be Discouraged
Writing true life stories is so important and I don’t want to discourage you. My suggestion is to write it for yourself and use it to heal. Write out everything. Every detail. Every event. Everything. Then go back through your story and see what really needs to be included. Before you publish anything make sure to get at least someone else to read it, someone impartial (I recommend a minimum of 5 people). If you can, show it to the person that you’re writing about in your story. I recognize this isn’t always an option but understand if you can’t talk to them about what you are writing, chances are they aren’t going to like it. If you can talk with them, you might save yourself a few headaches.
I don’t know if there are truly a lot of lawsuits against authors for memoirs or autobiographies or biographies but I do know that it is something that happens. Most people, never mind authors, do not want to find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit.
Use Due Diligence
You need to use due diligence and do what you can before you publish to make sure this won’t come back and bite you.
I am not a lawyer and have never been in this situation but I do want you to be sure to protect yourself. Do some research but find a way to write your story. It truly is important.
Writing is the best gift and an incredible way to heal, the mend and grow. Don’t let this article discourage you, use it to find out more and find a way to make sure that you can share your story in a way you are proud of it but also won’t land you in hot water.
Writing memoirs is a grey area.
Some articles that go more into depth on this topic:
A Writer’s Guide to Defamation and Invasion of Privacy.
“Be clear on why you want to write about certain events can you change them and still feel good about what you wrote?”