Ethics for the Memoir Writer: The Unwritten Code

memoir writerAs a memoir writer, you’ll need to set aside normal concerns about privacy in order to bare your soul to your readers and reveal details you typically keep private.

Often, it’s not just your personal information that is being revealed; you’ll be discussing other people, as well. And this can be a problem. The people you mention (or their family members) might take offense at what you say, even if you think you’re saying nice things about them.

So how can memoir writers bare their souls without causing the people they mention to bare their teeth?

Here are a few tips from a professional ghostwriter who has wrestled with this issue.

Choose Details Carefully

As you describe other people and their actions, and put words in their mouths, consider carefully what you’re trying to convey and what you really need to say. Is a description of someone’s extra-large nose, criminal past, or foolish habits truly essential to your story? Many embarrassing details can be ignored or glossed over without weakening your memoir’s theme or lessening your readers’ enjoyment.

Search Your Feelings…   

Think carefully about the words and actions you ascribe to the people in your memoir. Do they paint a true and fair picture? Or have you allowed your feelings to twist what you wrote? Yes, a memoir is by definition “remembered history,” dependent on flawed human memory and colored by the author’s feelings. But ask yourself whether you have allowed your anger, embarrassment or other feelings to run rampant, turning an honest portrayal into character assassination. Are you writing your memoir to explore and share your feelings, or to take revenge? If you are driven by revenge or other negative feelings, your readers will sense it. Not only will they stop identifying with you, they will lose interest in your story.

Consider Changing Names…

A memoir is supposed to be truthful, but many a memoir writer has changed names and other details to spare someone’s feelings and/or avoid a lawsuit. In some cases, it’s easy to hide a person’s true identity by changing a name and other identifying information, without compromising the accuracy of the story. But in other cases, it’s nearly impossible. For example, if you are writing about your relationship with a famous person, your readers will probably guess who it is if you only change a few details. And if you are writing about your family, your relatives will probably figure out who a certain character is even if you change his name, age, sex and more.

If you do change names or other identifying information, be sure to inform your readers up front that you’ve done so.

Ask for Feedback…

Before publishing information about other people, you might show them what you’ve written and give them a chance to ask you to change or remove certain details. You might be able to make these changes easily and avoid offense, without altering the truth of your story. If not, at least you will know up front that there is an issue and you can consult with an attorney before publishing your book.

Check with an Attorney…

If you’re working with a professional ghostwriter, you might be tempted to ask him or her how to handle privacy and other issues. But remember: While a ghostwriter can give you advice based on experience, only an attorney can give you legal advice.

If you are looking for a professional ghostwriter to help you write an interesting, compelling memoir, contact Barry Fox.

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