Writing The Truth, With Respect For Others

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, Master Certified Life CoachDiane 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.

31 thoughts on “Writing The Truth, With Respect For Others

  1. I have written a book where I have captured the personalities of several real-life individuals. I have obtained their permissions to retain certain aspects of who they are and will be publishing to Kindle next month. I will be marketing the book as FICTION, as the majority of it is creative writing, and didn’t actually happen. The story is about 25% memoir and 75% fiction. In your opinion, should I still take another look at my manuscript and alter any ties that their friends and family could make?
    I am a first-time writer, and I can’t imagine my book selling millions, however, I still need much guidance on this aspect of the book. The last thing I want to do bring any falsehoods or misrepresentations to their characters in real life.

    • Hi Amy,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. Congratulations on your new book! I’m no expert on libel, but I’d recommend that you show the completed manuscript to the people who are recognizable and make you they know how you have portrayed them.

      I show all my posts about my husband to him before I publish them. Once he said he thought he came off like a jerk, but I could still publish the post. I re-read it, as that’s not how I intended to make him look, but I thought the point was lost if I took out the part that he objected to. So, with his blessing, I published it. His generosity is one of the many things I love about him. But, if he had asked me to change the post, I would have.

      I hope that helps. Also, if you haven’t read Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott, check it out. It’s a great book for any writer, but especially for newer writer.

      Best wishes with your book and your writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  2. It’s nice to see that I am not alone in thinking this is worth discussing explicitly within one’s published stuff. My approach is here: http://bit.ly/SMFrjt

    There are occasions where I decide, despite many rewrites, that I just cannot publish something, either because it just doesn’t seem possible to adequately anonymize the participants, or because it reads as derogatory rather than exploratory.

    • Hey Peter,
      Wow, I just read your approach to your blog and it is wonderful. If I’d read it before I wrote this post, I’d have just referenced you and been done with it!

      I agree, there are times when I write something and then realize I can’t adequately disguise people and still do the story justice, which I wrote about in a previous blog post–that’s what started this conversation.

      I think telling stories is the best way to persuade, inspire, and comfort people. But you can’t dis the people you are telling the story about in order to make your point.

      Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comments.

      Warmly,
      Diane

  3. So, I am guessing the gal who doesn’t want to be identified in your blog is actually a guy? Or were we to think that it was a man, so that it actually could be referencing a woman ? Haha.
    This is a tough subject. But I also believe that every character we write about is an aspect or specter of ourselves~ so I treat (even the mean and crazy ones) as I would want to be treated. If I cannot do that, I have to skip it (like Peter E above)
    Kassie aka “Mom”

    • Hi Kassie,
      I’ll never tell how I changed the details to disguise the innocent! :)

      I love what you said about every character being an aspect of ourselves and treating others as we would like to be treated. The Golden Rule will never steer you wrong.

      Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comments.

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

    • Hi Simple,
      It’s funny that you mention revenge, because Anne Lamott thinks that’s a great reason to write about someone–but she still recommends you make the person unrecognizable!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Warmly,
      Diane

    • Hi Reese,
      You’re welcome. I wrote memoir for years and I never did anything with it because I couldn’t figure out how to be authentic without hurting (or potentially hurting) people. It was only after I started blogging that I really figured it out. One of these days I’m going to go back to some of my memoir pieces.

      Good luck with your writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  4. What a helpful post. As a fellow coach, I too am challenged by how to tell an authentic story on my blog while protecting privacy. Your tips are wonderful and similar to what I do. Also, anything that reminds me to reread Bird by Bird is worthwhile!

    • Hi Jamie,
      Thanks for your comments and thanks for reading. It’s not easy to tell a powerful story while also protecting other people’s privacy, but we have to if we are going to continue to work with people and keep their trust. And, yes, I always find something new to love when I reread Bird By Bird!

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  5. This was great, I always wondered how I would go about this because sometimes a person’s description is worth writing but to protect privacy you have to sacrifice that (I guess). Could it be this way in terms of films and comedies?

    • Hi Yvonne,
      I think it works for anything. As writers, we can change the description to protect the innocent (or the guilty!) but still make it a compelling description. That’s part of the creativity of the writing craft. I think it’s important to keep the meat of the story true but change minor details that are identifying but not necessary to the story. I think it applies to films, comedies, anything you write where you want to protect someone’s privacy but still a story that is important to you.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  6. How do you do this in regards to an environment or organization? I’m writing a memoir about my experiences as a parish pastor (I’ve since left ministry, for reasons the book will make clear), and while I’m confident in my ability to disguise most individuals, where and when I served is a matter of public record, and some of those congregations are not going to be pleased with my overall portrayal of them. Also, no matter how many details I change, it won’t be too difficult to figure out who was council president in 2010, etc. I feel my story needs to be told, but telling it will hurt and anger a fair number of people. Any suggestions?

    • Hi quietpublications,
      Wow, it sounds like you have an amazing story to tell. I think one of the advantages of traditional publishing houses is that they have a legal department who can advise you on what you need to change, or what permissions you need to get. If you are going this route, the publishing house should be able to help you figure out the answers to your questions.

      If you are planning to self-publish, I recommend you find someone who can legally advise you on how to go forward. Honestly, my only experience with this is what I learned from the movie “Riding In Cars With Boys,” where the Drew Barrymore character wrote a memoir and then had to get written permission from her ex-husband before the publishing house would publish the memoir.

      If I was going to look for legal advice for my writing, I’d start with Sisters In Crime, a national writers group that I belong to, for mystery writing women. They and other groups like it often have resources for their members, or you can also look at writing magazines for resources.

      Best wishes as you move forward with publication of your story.

      Warmly,
      Diane

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  8. I am actually having trouble with this myself; I was forced to shut down my blog for several months, as I had been writing about my family and life growing up (it was not a good life). While I have never mentioned my name or the names of anybody in my family, if my family members read it, they would be able to identify themselves.

    I have been cyber-stalked (and eventually physically stalked) by a woman for the past year. She threatened to call and email every member of my family, my exes, and their exes if I did not take down my blog.

    As she had previously called a brother-in-law, my daughter, and my son-in-law, I knew she had the means to follow through with her threat. I made the decision to terminate my blog. It was devastating as it had come to mean so much to me, and the interaction with my community was important to me.

    So many people felt I was already risking my family learning about it, but truly they are so unsophisticated about the Internet, they would never find it on their own.

    I have thought often about writing a memoir and have aunts, uncles, and cousins who encourage me to write our story; however, I do not know how to do it without hurting my family.

    While I did take my blog down for a while (feeling that it had been my choice, my story, my family did not ask to be exposed), I am putting it back up. I now have enough evidence against her that I can go to the police with any further threats.

    But, the experience has made me think about every word I type, and the toll it can take on those in my stories… regardless about how true they are.

    Any advice?

    Always, The Flat Girl

    • Hi The Flat Girl,
      I don’t know what to tell you. I have hundreds of pages of memoir stuck in a drawer or in binders on my bookshelf and I’ve never done anything with them because I haven’t been able to figure out a way to do it without hurting anyone. I wrote for myself, to get it all straight in my head, but if I had a good reason to publish it, I think I would try. My friend and mentor Martha Beck wrote a memoir called “Leaving The Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith.” She actually received death threats and she was asked by multiple family members not to publish the book. She kept reconsidering the decision but every time she decided her reasons to publish, which included helping other people who have been victimized by organized religions, were more important than her fear of what other people would think. She did lose her connection with her family of origin when she published the book, plus all the people she grew up with, so it was a huge loss, but she did publish the book (and is glad she did.)

      If you have a compelling reason for publishing this blog (compelling to you–it doesn’t need to be important to anyone else) then I say continue. But you may hurt people, anger people, upset people in your life and past. You can’t control how anyone will respond. You have to be willing to let go of the outcome because you can’t control it. I would assume that your family will find out, though–someone will tell them if you put it out there in a public forum.

      Best of luck with your decision, and your writing.

      Warmly,
      Diane

  9. Thank you for this; it answered some questions for me. I recently trashed a blog post because the principle character was easily identifiable, and I didn’t know what to do about it. In the future, I’ll make significant changes to the character but leave the story intact.

    • Hi Anne,
      I’m glad I was able to answer some questions. Maybe you can revisit the blog post you trashed–if the story is important, it may be worth saving.

      Best wishes with your writing and thanks for reading and commenting!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  10. This is an interesting post. I developed a character who did some of the things my mother did. While the character was in no way my mother, I used specific actions that were odd and unique, to make my character real. My siblings of course recognized those quirks, and decided the character was our mother. It fascinated me that because of physical movement or action, they saw my mother when the character looked or acted nothing like our mother. They didn’t see the whole character and made a decision based on one or two things they recognized. Which makes me ponder how readers most likely see our characters nothing like we see them.

    • Hi Lisa,
      Thanks for your comments. Yes, it’s interesting what people see. I’ve heard authors say that people always think that characters in their book are based on them, even when they have nothing to do with them.

      I think using real quirks makes our characters more believable, but then you do run the risk of people thinking that you wrote about the whole person, rather than just the quirks.

      So, once you have finished your story and put it out there, you have no say over how it is perceived. Which means it’s time to move on to the next story, yes?

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

      • Yep, moved on to the next story. Interestingly enough, the character with my mother’s quirks ended up being the most popular with readers. She had to come back in the sequel.
        I think you are right about thinking if a quirk or trait is in a character than the whole character must be that person. It’s perception, but also, in a way, the difficulty in separating fiction from reality. Good questions raised by this post. Thanks again.

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