Do You Own Your Story?

The answer to this blog’s title – “Do You Own Your Story” – at first glance seems obvious. Of course you do, right? It’s your story, your life. You have the right to share it – or not – with whomever you’d like. Ask any therapist and she’ll tell you the same thing.

But ask a lawyer, and you’ll get another answer.

Because, unfortunately, it’s not so simple. The truth is your life intersects with the lives of many others. Parents, children, siblings, spouses, friends. The list goes on and on. And while you most definitely own your history, you don’t own theirs.

That cute story about how you tattle-tailed on your brother when you were nine (and he was rewarded with a month of detention at school) may not be so cute to your brother. Your mother may not be keen on you divulging your childhood memories of parental discord. And your first husband? Don’t even start with him.

Like I said, not so simple.

When I work with clients, I advise them of their three options when it comes to writing of significant others in their life:

Tell the whole truth

Readers trust authors who name names and share details. The more descriptive, the better, and vague, anonymous caricatures never won any Pulitzers. As memoir readers, we want to really see and feel what you did. Adopt Anne Lamott’s approach in Bird by Bird: “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” But be prepared: there may be consequences. And a consult with a lawyer is never a bad idea.

Tell most of the truth

Yes, you tattle-tailed on your brother, but the principal understood and chalked it off to youth. Change the details: names, dates, locations, or any relevant information that could upset said brother. You get the idea. Share the gist of the story but with an eye on keeping the peace.

Don't tell

All memoir writers have to balance their quest for sharing the truth with protecting the anonymity of others in their life. It’s not easy, especially when your wish for truth and their wish for anonymity occupy huge blocks of the same space. If you want to tell your story, consider writing it for your own catharsis with no intention of sharing it broadly (the choice most of my clients make). Or tell only part of your story, leaving out those blocks that are most contentious. Maybe you don't even have a brother according to your narrative.

Yes, you own your life story. That’s undeniable. But there are many real-life characters in your story who may feel real-life pain/anger/disappointment once your book is released. They own their own lives too.

So how much to tell? There is no one right answer to this question but it is a question that should be seriously considered before the fact. Talk to your brother, check in with your mother. Take their temperature.

And, of course, please let me know if I can help.