What Do Writers Owe to the People They Write About?
Memoirs often touch upon deeply personal family dynamics. And what’s deeply personal is often deeply contentious.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, David Sedaris, Jeannette Walls: The memoir writers whose friends and family members got angry or even threatened to sue could fill a whole list of New York Times bestsellers.
So what's a writer to do?
This question comes up many times in Why We Write About Ourselves, a collection of interviews with 20 memoirists.
"With memoirs, you break the contract you signed when you were three years old,” says Anne Lamott in Why We Write About Ourselves, “promising not to ever, ever tell the truth, promising your family secrets would you go with you to the grave. In a family, that's life-threatening. They tell you that if you ever tell the truth about the family, the long bony hand will come out of the sky and kill you."
To spill or not to spill? Authors can’t agree.
In her now-classic writing manual Bird by Bird, Lamott famously wrote:
“If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
But in Why We Write About Ourselves, Lamott admits to getting approval from her son, Sam, before publishing intimate details about their lives.
The advice from other writers in Why We Write About Ourselves is just as varied. Some say that writers have a responsibility to protect the privacy of their family and friends. Others say that writers should be free to tell whatever stories they want, as long as those stories stay true to their own experience.
"I'm ... conscious of which stories are mine to tell and which belong to other people,” says Meghan Daum in Why We Write About Ourselves. “If I tell a story involving someone else, I make sure to tell it from my point of view. I make sure it's a different story from the one the person would tell about himself. Otherwise, I'd just be stealing his story."
A sound guideline, but what if you’re trying to recreate the past experiences of family members, as Jeanette Walls did in Half-Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel? Or telling a story from another person's point of view?
And worse, what if you’re not sure that your point of view is accurate? Memories of traumatic events are notoriously unreliable. When researchers asked people about their experiences on 9/11, for example, interviewees forgot important details, falsely remembered others and misidentified their own emotional reactions.
All these ambiguities funnel into a bigger question about responsibility: What do writers really owe to the people they write about?
I ask this question nearly every time I sit down to write. It holds me accountable for my words and reminds me that I can never fully predict other people’s reactions to my work. Nor can I completely vouch for the accuracy of my own memories.
What do I owe to the people I write about?
The answer changes depending on what—and whose—story I’m trying to tell. But the answer doesn’t really matter. The answer never mattered. The value is in the asking.