Recently, a reader asked me how to go about protecting people’s privacy while also protecting the truth of the story when we are writing memoir or other nonfiction pieces. In my life coaching blog, I write often about things that happen to the people around me.
I have found Anne Lamott’s advice, from her book, Bird By Bird, to be very helpful. She suggests how to handle writing about a man in your life:
“If he revealed himself through his actions toward you to be a sociopathic narcissist, you can attempt to capture his character and use actual conversations, just as long as this specific man is not identifiable by your descriptions. Change everything that would point to him specifically.”
I have used this advice to help me change my stories so that the truth of the story remains, but identifying details are changed. Here’s how I do it:
1. I write (and rewrite) the story as truthfully as possible.
2. I go back in and change identifying details so that friends, family, clients, and patients are unrecognizable.
3. If the story is substantially about someone else, I show the piece to the person involved and get their permission to post it before I make it public.
Identifying details that do not have anything to do with the truth of the story could be hair color, eye color, profession, and personal habits, but these could also be a part of the truth of the story, so I start with the whole truth and then change some details, going back over the story to make sure that my changes have not interfered with the point or the truth of the story.
When I write for my life coaching blog, I do not disguise myself or my husband. Most times I write about my husband or both of us, I feel that our relationship is critical to the truth of the story. Also, I show my husband everything I write that involves him and he always (so far!) gives me permission to post it.
One of my family members doesn’t want to be mentioned in my blog, even in a positive light. I once showed her a post about her with the identifying details changed and she said it was fine. She didn’t mind me telling the story, she just didn’t want anyone to know it was about her.
Patients and clients are always disguised. Even if I’m writing about something that happened years ago and I don’t think the patient or client would ever recognize themselves, I still change details so they are not identifiable.
These days our words can last a lot longer than they used to, and they can be accessed much more readily, so it’s up to us as writers to be respectful of the wishes and needs of others as we tell our truth.
Diane MacKinnon, MD, is a master certified life coach, writer, and family physician. Check out my life coaching blog, Healing Choices, and let me know what you think.