How Should You Write About Real People?
A blogger asked: “How can I tell true stories about people if the stories don’t paint them in a positive light?”
I was tempted to answer with Anne Lamott’s quote: “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
But flippancy, while entertaining, doesn’t help solve the dilemma. I write mostly nonfiction so this is a question I answer regularly in my work. My answer is this: It depends on what you’re saying and why. It’s not as simplistic as tell the truth when it’s pretty and write fiction if it’s ugly. In my parenting book, “Raising Amazing Children While Having A Life of Your Own,” I quote a bevy of experts — real people who have raised children and lived to tell the tale. I share some names but first names only, as I checked with people and that was their preference. I was saying mostly good things (hey, no one is perfect, some parents make mistakes!) but even so, mostly anonymous felt right and enabled me to say both positive and negative without much embarrassment on anyone’s part. I wanted the book to help parents with practical suggestions. That was the goal, not to judge anyone’s parenting.
In “Tales From The Family Crypt,” my memoir about our wildly dysfunctional family, I researched legalities and chose to disguise identities to a certain extent. I examined my goal and concluded I wasn’t using my writing as a weapon of vengeance(not a healthy choice). I didn’t use anyone’s real name. But I did publish under my own name so it wasn’t a stretch for people who knew my family to know who was who in the story. But no other reader could tell who these people were and the folks who know the family already knew much of the story. However, that didn’t stop the psycho siblings from trashing me on Amazon and hiring a lawyer to sue me. Neither of those actions worked well for them. And, I already knew our estrangement was permanent so, honestly, I didn’t care what they thought and I believed (and this has been confirmed many times by the positive reviews on Amazon) my story would be helpful and supportive to people fighting similar battles in their families.
In my blog, the question is ongoing. I’ve written about friends but never share their names unless I’m 100% sure they’ll love what they read. It’s a gray area. I have a friend currently battling metastatic cancer with an awful prognosis. I could blog daily about how much I’ve learned from watching her live life heroically in the face of this onslaught of horror. I know her story could help others but it’s a story I don’t tell because, while I know she doesn’t read the blog, if she found out about it I know she’d be embarrassed by my shining a light on her most private and intimate fight. It’s a story I crave telling, as a writer and as a human compelled by her strength. It’s hard not to tell it but hurting someone I love even to help others is not a choice. Overall, if you write about real people and can check with them to see if it’s okay, go for it. If you can’t check, be prepared to accept consequences, which could include being sued!
So, like many aspects of life, writing true stories is a delicate balance of the pros, the cons, the blacks, the whites, and the grays. Ultimately, I advise others to write what they need to say but take a moment (or even better a few days) to weigh the pros and cons before hitting Publish.