How to Write Non-Fiction & Keep Your Friends
In a few months I’m releasing my first book, a memoir titled Packing Light: Thoughts on Living Life with Less Baggage. One of the difficulties I encountered while writing was: how am I supposed to tell my story in an honest way, while still protecting the people and relationships involved?
I don’t think I’m alone in this dilemma.
Many writers have a story they feel inclined to tell, but keep it to themselves because they think, “My mother would never speak to me again if I wrote this,” or “I would ruin that person’s reputation.” The thought of altering the truth to appease concerned parties, or speaking the truth in spite of potential chaos, both seem unacceptable sacrifices, so the story sits hidden for decades.
While I admit it hasn’t been easy to find a way to tell my story honestly, while protecting all of the relationships involved, I am also the first to say it is worth it. It has actually made me a more humble, more honest writer.
Here are a few “techniques” I’ve used.
1. Change names.
Anytime you are writing a memoir, you are dealing with real people and real incidents. For that reason, my publisher made it clear to me from the beginning that I would have to receive legal permissions from any “character” I chose to give his or her real name.
Since there were some “characters” I knew would not provide this permission (or with whom I simply had no contact) I changed names and identifying factors to protect their identities. This solution isn’t simple enough to protect every relationship (it doesn’t matter if you change your mom’s name, for example, she’ll still know you’re talking about her) but I was able to use this strategy to protect a few characters without sacrificing the integrity of my story.
2. Focus on yourself.
Since the book is a memoir, I tried to focus on myself more than I did on other people. That means, when I shared about arguments or misunderstandings, I tried to take the approach any psychologist would recommend in real life. I try to talk about me instead of them.
“I felt lonely” instead of “He abandoned me.”
I share personal details about a romantic relationship gone wrong, for example. While I could have taken this as my perfect opportunity to air every grievance I had against this particular person, instead I tried to focus on my own fault in the situation (which was plenty). I believe this is the more mature route, in writing as well in life.
I tried to give every character in my story the benefit of the doubt.
3. Alter details.
Sometimes changing names and identifying factors wasn’t enough to protect the identities of the people I was writing about, so I had to play with the details a little. This can get fuzzy, because I also have a high value of telling the truth, but I think there is a way to keep your message in tact while artfully shaping details to protect delicate friendships and relationships, or the identities of those who haven’t given permission.
A few examples of this might be:
- Sharing a conversation with a friend as if it happened with a stranger
- Changing the time period, or location of an event
- Altering the outcome of a particular incident (when the outcome doesn’t impact the meaning you’re communicating)
4. Leave stuff out.
Sometimes, with some details, it’s just best to leave it out.
There are no hard and fast rules behind this, and I think we have to be careful not to hide our stories because we’re afraid of how people will react, but as a general rule of thumb I am learning to leave details out when they are distracting to the reader, are in some way unhelpful, or cannot be verified by the memory of myself or others (in that final case, it might be appropriate to try telling the story in a different way).
As writers we have a responsibility and a privilege to use our platform not to shame people, or embarrass them, but to love them.
We have to balance that very gently with telling the truth.
What story have you been keeping to yourself because you’re protecting the people in it? How can you use these techniques to tell it?
Write for fifteen minutes about a something that really happened to you, without revealing any of the people or places involved. Try to keep all other details the same.
When your finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to comment on a few posts by other writers.
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