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Times Past: Dealing with Others

By Irene Waters

I write memoir – my memories of particular times or events in my life. In this process, through no fault of their own other than being part of my life I write another person’s narrative.

Who are the other people in our story – firstly there is the “I,” and then because we don’t live our lives in isolation, there are those people whose lives intertwine. It is impossible to leave out these other people when we recount our memoirs, but we must remember that they are having their story written as unwitting real-life characters and as such are due a good deal of respect. So how do we deal with these people?

Ideally, we tell them that we are writing a memoir in which they feature. Don’t show them what you have written until the book has had close to its final edit. Where possible stay with them whilst they read the portion in which they feature. Don’t give it to them to take away. Get their opinion at the time they read it. This is the ideal way because if they take it away they may give it to others to read and the feedback you get may not be their own. If they object to anything you have written, then you must consider the costs to you of leaving it in the memoir. Is this a person you care about and you don’t want to lose their friendship? Is the passage they have objected to necessary to the event? Can it be reworded without losing the truth? Are you prepared to accept that you might lose a friendship? Letting them read is the ideal situation but is not always possible. Strangely, for those people who have done this the majority report that the person will usually find something they are not too happy about but it is rarely the item that the author has been worrying over.

I have not given my memoir to anybody to read who I featured in it. To do so poses some problems as we are geographically removed in some instances, I have no idea where some of the people are, and one doesn’t want to read it. I have given it to a lawyer to check that I have written nothing by which I could be taken to court and sued. I have also changed some names. I have been dead against doing this but suddenly I came to a decision that for minor characters, who could be hurt by what I have written and I have no desire to hurt them, it is easier to change their names. In the author note, however, I will make it quite clear that I have changed some names. I have also changed a name to make it easier for the reader to know who the character is in the scene. On Tanna, there were some people named Chief Tom. Some names can’t be changed, such as my husband’s. He will be my husband no matter what I call him and thereby readily identifiable. I asked him if he would like to read the manuscript, but he refused. The reason he gave was that if he read it, he knew that he would be saying “you should say it this way” and be trying to get me to alter it to fit his voice. As far as what I have written about him he trusts that he already knows my thoughts. He will probably read it after it is published, but it is possible that he doesn’t want to revisit this period of our lives.

If you do or don’t give it to the character to look at, avoid at all costs, labelling them in the narrative. For example, don’t say that Rebecca was an alcoholic – show what she does and allow the reader to determine what she is. If Gary is a paedophile in your opinion, again don’t label but show. Labelling tends to reflect poorly on the author, and it will be more than the character that will dislike you – your reader will likely form a bad opinion of you. Last month I suggested that we need to let time elapse so that the high emotion we feel close to the event can dissolve to allow us to write from a non-judgemental point of view. This is crucial.

A chap called Paul John Eakin suggests that we are taught by our parents at an early age the rules relating to the telling of life narratives. These rules are, to tell the truth, to respect the privacy of others and to be aware of the normative model of personhood. The first two are self-explanatory. The last refers to who you are writing about and your responsibility to them based on their level of normalcy. For example, if you are writing about your partner, you can be much freer with what you write because the partner can respond with his or her own memoir. This is not the case with those suffering dementia, brain injuries and children. Thus the level of respect shown to any vulnerable person must be immense.

The other person that you must show consideration to is yourself. The person you are narrating is not the present day you, but he or she is capable of creating a crisis of emotion in the present day you. Just the other day I was searching for something and thought it might be in the court documents. I sat down and read the entire file which consisted of letters and court records. I thought I had dealt with our time in Vanuatu and was surprised at the level of anger and hurt reading these documents brought out in me. If you are at risk make sure you have a support system in place that you can call on if necessary – that may be a friend or professional help. I vented on Roger.

This month’s Times Past looks at a facet of life that can only exist if there are other people in the memory – family conversation – where did it happen? This also draws on your memory of place. Often by dragging back visions of particular rooms or places little stories and details will come unbidden. I hope you’ll join in, giving your location at the time of your memory and your generation. An explanation of the generations and the purpose of the prompts along with conditions for joining in is at the Times Past Page. Join in either in the comments here, in my comments section or by creating your own post and linking. I’m looking forward to your memories.


  1. Charli Mills says:

    Irene, your post illuminates a point that makes memoir a genre that carries greater responsibility. We’ve talked about telling our own truth — be that our perspective or recall of memory — but here you discuss the permissions of others included in a memoir work. Typically, even when I post on FB about my husband’s plight with the VA, I read to him what I intend to post. Roger trusts you and acknowledges that he is familiar with your memories of your book’s subject but interesting that he might not want to read it at all given the traumatic memories. Thank you for another thought-proking look at memoir. I’m curious to read what others have to say, too!

    • Yes it is an interesting subject and I’ll be interested in other people’s thoughts. You do the right thing showing your husband. For me names are what I find most challenging. Most people like to have their own name used. It is an acknowledgement of their being. I would always use the correct name if I could run the story by the person. Because I haven’t been able to do that I have changed some names. To my mind I haven’t said anything that they would be unhappy about but to their mind who knows.

      • Charli Mills says:

        I agree with your point about using real names as an acknowledgment of another’s being. And yet, it surprises me the number of writers who wish to not use their name as an author. I suppose there are dynamics of privacy, anonymity, and revelation at work in such decisions. But as a memoirist that can be challenging to sort. What if an author publishes without asking permission? Is that a legal concern?

      • Not usually a legal concern unless they have written something about the person which would be considered to be libel. I am publishing without asking permission and I can’t be sued for libel because I have said nothing that is not true. The only risk is that Roger will not like what I have written and if it was bad enough then I have put my relationship at risk. I have said nothing however that I have not said to his face so I don’t think that is a huge risk to take.

      • Charli Mills says:

        So, two different issues — libel and relationships. Funny how we think of concerns related to libel, but might overlook what might impact relationships. This has been a good discussion.

      • It has been a good discussion. I think it is like politics – always focusing on the economy whereas I think the focus should be on what kind of society we want to live in. For those relationships that matter, consideration on the effect of what you have written is so important and for those that don’t matter – they still deserve to be treated with respect.

  2. Reblogged this on Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist) and commented:
    A memoir post that I wrote for Carrot Ranch on memoir.

  3. Irene, this is one of the most definitive articles I’ve read on the responsibility of writing memoir. You covered every topic over which I’ve sometimes pondered. You highlight maintaining respect for other people. You identify the possible legal problems and I like the idea of consulting with an attorney. You’re also right about people taking issue with events you thought wouldn’t bother them. That’s because we each have our own point of view and our own scale of importance.

    I’ve occasionally written incidents into my fiction that closely resemble real life events that involve real people. I change significant aspects: gender, age, physical attributes, time periods, ethnicity, character traits, and I always change names.

    I can’t wait to read your book. Please let me know when it’s available.

    • Thank you Sharon. I’m glad that I covered all the topics you’d thought about. I know that you have done so in regard to the writing you have been doing in regard to alzheimer’s. I consulted with a lawyer and that is why my book has been so long in coming out. I knew that letters remained the copyright property of their author for many years but I had thought as they were in the public domain as part of a court case that this would remove the legal right. It does but the court takes over the copyright.
      You are absolutely right about coming to a narrative with our own point of view and scale of importance and this holds for fiction as well. We read narratives differently depending on our world view and personal experiences. I have been surprised with my mother – things that I thought would upset her didn’t faze her at all but a tiny thing that I thought was inconsequential she fixated on. It was inconsequential so I just removed it from the narrative.
      I’ll definitely let you know when the book is available.

    • Charli Mills says:

      I agree, Sharon, Irene has greatly expanded this topic on the responsibilities of writing memoir. And like you, I absorb the world (and people) around me to create fiction, but definitely, I fictionalize what I take into my creative realm of writing.

  4. It’s 22 years ago today that my Dad died.
    Mum, Bro, myself and Hubby were at his hospital bedside when he slipped away. Mum was holding his right hand, I was holding his left. It was peaceful and gentle. he was surrounded by love as he started his next journey. Now Mum and Dad are together again.

    • It sounds as though your Dad had a lovely passing surrounded and held by those who loved him. It is nice to think of your Mum and Dad again being together although it is hard for those that are left behind. Our memories become so much more important when you are holding those dear in your heart. Sending you big hugs on a day that will always bring back the sad memories.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Di, the way you write this memory captures the peace and pain you felt at your Dad’s passing.

  5. Excellent thoughts on memoir writing. Bravo, Irene. <3

  6. Annecdotist says:

    Interesting post, Irene. Definitely much easier to make things up! Although even then some people might – rightly or wrongly – recognise themselves.
    I have to smile because when I saw the heading “Dealing with others” my first thought was in relation to the introvert’s headache of having to interact with other people in real life!

    • Although I wonder how much of fiction is made up Anne rather than a series of observed human attributes and characters strung together in a way they weren’t in real life – which I guess is made up. At least you don’t have to consider your characters. I think people like to see themselves in stories and the funny thing I and others have found they never recognise themselves if the character is the bad guy but they are more than happy to attribute a good character to themselves.
      The introvert’s headache – if only I had the answers to that life would become so much easier. For that I have no answers but I wish I did.

    • Charli Mills says:

      I agree with what feels easier to write, Anne! But reading Irene’s response, my head is spinning a bit. I have landed on the idea that ultimately, we do write what we know! As human beings, perhaps it’s impossible to unravel where our creative characters come from, but memoir has a stronger responsibility to answer that question.

      • In fiction also you can take the way Mrs x would respond to a problem whilst giving them Mr Y’s insecurities and Miss A’s political persuasions etc etc and end up with a totally new character that is a conglomerate of ones you know well. The real life characters A, X and y would be hard pushed to say that is me although they may recognise traits they have and therefore related strongly to the character.

      • Charli Mills says:

        Yes, Irene! That becomes the fun of it!

  7. A half-remembered quote, cannot recall source…

    “When people know you are writing memoir, they know to duck for cover”.

    I find that when what I want to express could be construed as negative, it’s best to stay close to my experience (physical, emotional) and, as you so rightly observe, avoid labels and judgement. Never is ‘show don’t tell’ more important.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Good point about the importance of “show don’t tell” in the realm of memoir. And as to the quote you’ve shared, I think, you can’t hide from a writer!

    • A lot of people hope they will be written into the story. Its like looking at photograph albums – people tend to scan people to see firstly themselves then who they know. Ducking for cover I always associate with finding out some one is a psychologist. I also never used to tell people I was a nurse because out would come all the medical conditions but then it was me ducking for cover rather than the audience.
      I totally agree ‘show don’t tell’ in these circumstances is very important.

  8. susansleggs says:

    A thought provoking post Irene. I guess I never thought about letting another person in my memoir okay what I wrote, but with your explanation I can see why it is necessary.
    In fiction, I find my characters are all a part of me, and some of other people I have known as you said to Anne. A friend of my husband’s has read my WIP and asked me if I had modeled one of the character’s after him. The answer was yes, but I didn’t realize it until he told me. That was an eye opener.
    I have discovered revisiting a trying time in my life brought the angst back to the front, and was harder to dispel the second time. I’m not sure I would do it again. Let the sleeping dogs lie so to speak. Maybe that is why I am having such a tough time thinking of anything specific to write about on “family conversations.”

    • Charli Mills says:

      Like you, Susan, I use material from life to create characters, but I also find it freeing to use a trait or even a response in a completely different situation. I use “what if” a lot when I write. I’m stuck on the family conversations, too, although I have a possible idea. I’ll have to consider if it’s memoir though.

      • I think you write fiction when you write your stories (not having seen them I’m guessing) but I would suggest that you write memoir in your post-preamble. You focus on nature and people you meet but it is your story and you do it beautifully.

    • There was an interesting interview with Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote Eat Pray, Love. She said that if you wanted to see the real her it was her fiction book Signature of All Things that should be read. There, thinking she was anonymous she let the character flow. She didn’t realise whilst she was writing just how much this character was recognisable as her. Her memoirs, she polished with her editing until the Elizabeth that was shown to the world was a true version of herself but parts were missing.
      It is not essential to show your memoir to anyone else but if you value a relationship it can be wise.
      It must have been a surprise to you that you had written your friend without realising it until he asked you.
      An essential person that you have to consider in memoir is yourself. Revisiting a tough time in your life can, as you found, bring all those emotions felt at the time to the forefront. If there is any risk of this you have to set up a support system before you start writing so that these emotions can be worked through safely. Memoir writing has become a common therapeutic tool but they are always used within a framework that will support the writer.
      I have a time in my life that was traumatic and I repressed it totally. My husband doesn’t know about, nor my parents, brother or any friends. I touched on the surface of it in a piece I wrote and although difficult I felt a freedom I hadn’t felt before. By writing it I was acknowledging its existence and the effect it had on me and this allowed me to start to let it go. It was liberating. I haven’t gone deeper than the edges but I will set up an external support system for myself when I am ready to go there. I follow Leonard Cohen’s philosophy “you can’t start a new day with yesterday’s shit inside you.” Although this is what I believe it is tougher doing it, particularly for things way back, than you would think possible.
      If you can’t come up with family conversations don’t worry there is always next month. It is interesting conversing is a topic that few people have strong recall about. It is possible that conversations didn’t happen in many families. And with the advent of television perhaps eating in front of the television killed the conversation.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Susan.

      • susansleggs says:

        Thank you for your comments. I think I need to paste Leonard Cohen’s quote on my bathroom mirror. I had never heard it before.
        My sisters and I can talk non-stop for days, but we are rehashing memories of people, school, food and pets, rarely talking about feelings or emotional subjects, hence no real conversations. I think I am the only one of us four that is happy with my thoughts in a silent setting. Writing has certainly helped me.

      • I read a book he wrote in about 1978 and it was in there. Can’t remember the name of the book but have never forgotten the quote.
        I’m glad you are happy and that writing has helped. I wonder how many of us have real conversations. As an introvert I find I can’t have anything other than real conversations but I perhaps have few of them as I only converse with those close to me and the rare other person.

      • susansleggs says:

        You may not converse with many face to face, but here at the Ranch you share openly with all of us. We appreciate it.

      • Thank you Susan. That is a lovely comment and I do love the ranch because if nothing else we all have a love of writing or reading in common which gives us immediate openings for communication.

      • Charli Mills says:

        I love that quote of Cohen’s Irene! Thank you for sharing it and for the reminder to have a support group set up when working on visiting tough issues or times. Even when writing fiction, I can feel unnerved if I’ve lingered in the writing or even researching too long. I believe in process — to me, it leads to deeper discoveries.

      • Glad to share the quote as it makes so much sense to me both physically and metaphorically. The support system is crucial for those really tough issues and I agree – it will lead to deeper discoveries.

  9. A lovely post, Charli, I am sure your memoir will be most interesting. My husband would read any memoir I wrote that included him. He read a short story of mine the other day and decided he was the father who was a child abuser – really?

    • Charli Mills says:

      All the credit goes to Irene for the post and memoir! I wouldn’t have fun writing a memoir. Funny that your husband found something identifiable in an unsavory character. As I said to Susan, I like to use “what if” a lot in my writing, such as “what if my husband were a child abuser…” Usually, it helps me enter a new character with someone familiar, but once the character takes hold, I find he evolves in a new and unexpected way. This is sense of writing about others is fascinating.

    • I find that interesting that your husband decided that he was the villain. Perhaps he could see some traits of his and had the sense to know that this was fiction.

  10. Aweni says:

    Thank you for the insight on what to consider when writing a memoir especially the bit on how to handle the challenges of presenting other people’s narratives.

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