Creative and Memoir Writing Class Notes  March 2, 2022 by Carol Brennan King

The Writer's Roadmap: Paving the Way to Your Ideal Writing Life by [Leigh Shulman]
A place to start!

Hi Writer Friends,

This week we talked a lot about telling the truth in writing and how far is too far. That means we have to pay attention to our motives in what we write, especially when it is nonfiction or memoir.

  1. We must consider the people who share or impacted our story and how our writing about them impacts them.
  2. We can hurt feelings. Does that matter? Do we have enough distance to be rational about what happened?
  3. We can damage their reputation for the rest of their lives, long after the event happened, and perhaps after they have attempted to make it right, or have changed themselves significantly. Is that what we want to do? And what about how the fallout affects the people in their lives? Do you want to be known as the person who “wrecked” other peoples’ lives?
  4. What you say, even on paper travels a long way. It can damage another person’s relationships or vocational future. It can affect their emotional health.

So do you just ignore those people? This is where it is important that you examine your own motives in writing about these other people as you write about your life.

If you are writing to “balance the books” or for revenge, then maybe you are not yet in the right place to write this story. Maybe you need to talk to that person first, and with the desire to know who they are today. Or talk to someone who might help you sort out your feelings. Remember, most times, people did what they did because they saw no alternative at the time. It seemed reasonable to them. Think through the WHY of what your characters did, those real people in your life if you are writing nonfiction or memoir. Remember, it made sense to them at one time.

  • When you do write the story, you can use a pseudonym as the writer OR
  • You might consider changing the way you describe the person, or the gender, or the name you use for the person.

 The point is the book is about you, and if you spend a lot of time clarifying who hurt or offended you and however you felt about that person, the book may become about them, not you, and how you were changed or impacted. You do not want that.

Be careful about describing the person so well physically or behaviorally that the reader who knows you or your world will know who it is. A pseudonym may not be enough. If the description is clear enough, you may still be legally liable for slandering that person.

  • So how do you avoid this kind of liability? 
    • Write your first draft for yourself. If it helps  you to use the real names to get the thing down, do so. But note where you have done that. You will want to change it later. That first draft is just a “Spill your guts” exercise, so you can identify what the real story is about.
  • On your second trip through the story, think about the people who lived it with you. How would they feel about how they are represented in the writing?
  • If they or their reputation would be hurt or damaged, consider whether you want to risk that liability. Would you? The answer in most cases will be “NO!” of course not.
  •  This is where you choose the name you will use in the book, and be careful that it is not too thin a disguise. Again, if it is close enough to identify them, you are still liable for all kinds of damages.
  1.  When you change names, for their benefit and your own, you can put a disclaimer on the copyright page of your manuscript. And you will probably want to do that – saying something like this: Some names or events may have been altered to protect some people. Check how other authors handle this in their front matter.
  2.  Lest you think, I am going to write under a pseudonym, so no one will know that I said those things, WELL, let me ask you this: are you ready for your book to go out there and have no one know you wrote it?
    • You will not be able to promote your book or speak for it…
      • and optimistically speaking, you will never get on TV to discuss your book because, you know, you will be revealing your identity to the world, and thus their identity.
      • Lawyers everywhere will be hearing the cash register ringing, if they still do that. Either way, the older lawyers will know that metaphor.
  • In sum: write what you are happy to have people know, not necessarily that you are happy when those things happened to you, but you are happy to share the journey those events took you on.

Let’s do some review!

  1. Memoir Merriam-Webster defines it this way: a narrative(or story) composed of personal experience,( or the truth.) In a memoir, the author is the main character, the protagonist, if you will, and so the story is told in the first person – you are the narrator.
  • In a memoir, the author writes characters, think people, out of their memories, their imagination (yes, as you try to remember from a distance) and facts (think research.)
  •  You cannot make things up when you are writing a memoir. Other than names or descriptions if you must.
  •  You can honestly say, “I remembered it this way.” And it better be that it is a memory, not a wish that it was that way. Or hope that it was that way. What you write must be the best you can come up with as you rehearse what you remember of the time.

Remember, other people may be part of that memory and not see it as you did. That’s OK. Be sure to say, This is the way I remembered it. 

Years ago, I shared a memory with my sister, one that involved her and was very important to me. She had no memory of it. That does not mean it did not happen.

novel (categorized as historical fiction) about a fourteen-year-old girl’s coming of age in 1970s Baltimore, caught between her straight-laced family and the progressive family she nannies for—who happen to be secretly hiding a famous rock star and his movie star wife for the summer. from Amazon
  1. Finally, use lots of dialogue, getting it down as close as you can, but everyone acknowledges that you are “getting it as close as you can.” No one walks around with a recording device recording everything they say. Your readers do not expect you to remember and record and write only what actually took place with those exact words.
  2. You want to write a memoir in the same way as you do a piece of fiction. It is a story, only a true one.
  3. If it is going to be interesting, it must show your journey of change.
  4. You are one person at the front end, a different one at the end. We, as readers, watch you face and journey through conflict.
  5. At the end, we see the new you as a result of those journeys and what you learned on the way.
  • Nonfiction Meriam-Webster says:   writing or cinema that is about facts and real events (not necessarily your own)
  • Fiction Meriam-Webster says this: something invented by the imagination; or feigned, a useful illusion or pretense; or the action of feigning of creating with the imagination.
  •  Historical Fiction defines historical fiction as a story that takes the readers to a time and place in the past.
  • They go on to say:  A good rule of thumb is a minimum of 50 years. The idea is to take readers out of the events of their lifetime. But maybe there is some wiggle room, and we did talk in class about events that we could write about as historical fiction that we witnessed.
  1.  It’s most important feature, though, is that it’s set in the past, with every element of the story conforming to the norms of the day. 
  • The details and the action in the story can be a mix of actual events and ones from the author’s imagination as they fill in the gaps.

So there we are! Now you are prepped to write carefully, honestly, safely, and still tell great stories.

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