Someone asked me today if I ever ask people if I can write about them. I told the person, it never occurred to me to ask.
I rarely write about a person as a whole person. I take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and I create a whole new character.
But even if I used the majority of the personality traits and quirks and characteristics, there’s little danger of them recognizing themselves.
The truth is people rarely see themselves as others see them.
So – when I have written about that rare person – name changed – they never even suspected.
And, if I’m not slandering, endangering their job, family, or life, or using their real name, and they can barely recognize themselves as I or others see them, there is little to no chance of getting sued.
The sad fact is that I’ve created characters who some people identified with and had the mistaken impression that it was a reflection of them. It wasn’t.
Creating characters and writing about people is art.
Understanding who you are and how others see you as opposed how you see yourself takes a lifetime of understanding misunderstandings.
Psychologists believe that memory is fallible. We don’t really remember everything correctly. Every time we take out a memory, we add to it, subtract from it, try to reason with it – which, essentially, changes the memory.
People are highly suggestible. Their memories can suffer from suggestions from others, from pop culture, from their own emotional instability.
We all have those stories when we’re wrapped around the holiday table reminiscing and someone misremembers something – or remembers it differently than others. They swear they are right and the other is wrong.
Remember that scene in Scrooged with Bill Murry when he’s in the taxi and he’s recalling a memory: “I was running down a hill, and there was this beautiful girl in pigtails.” The taxi driver grumbles – “That was Little House on the Prairie!”
I used to know someone like that. Her misremembering took on a life of its own. It’s a wonder she’s not the fiction writer.
I find memoir exciting. Not because of the fictional aspects of the things we fill in. I completely accept that memory, and thereby memoir, is corrupt, but the exploration is enlightening. In memoir, we discover who we are. In my search for my sacred parts, in the healing of my broken parts, I strive for authenticity.
“Days of Remembrance” is an effort for me to come to terms with my brother’s passing. I didn’t get to say goodbye, so this is my goodbye to him. I think he’d appreciate it in the same way he appreciated when others reached out of their comfort zone, as he was trying to do in his last year or so of life.
“Days of Remembrance” was published in MemoryHouse Press. A lovely little journal of which I am proud to be included.
In dusty, breezy classrooms I stand for eight, sometimes ten hours a day, depending on the day. I’m one of the fortunate ones. I don’t have a single classroom, or even a single location. I move from city to city, even on a single day, from school to school, walking across hot blacktop and behind dusty construction. All for the beautiful souls.
I love students, young people, for all their awkward, wonderful, perfect imperfections.
There’s the brave souls who seem to know themselves and push forward in original dress or make up, the shy ones who cower at the back of the class, the jocks, the nerds, the quiet and boisterous, the bright, bouncy, round, and rolling. The variety is marvelous to experience.
There’s the one who know what they want to do every day for the next thirty or forty years of their lives, and the ones who wander lost, stumbling through their education, and the one who thinks they know their sexual power, and the other who hides behind their hair.
They’re all so amazingly beautiful – without really knowing it.
Beauty lies in their movements, in their anxious thoughts, their mistakes and missteps and goals and exceptional struggle to achieve.
Many people are concerned that our future, the future of our planet or mankind is in trouble; but there is hope.
In their clean, fresh faced, pimpled, freckled beautiful souls – earth’s only fountain of youth is our youth.
I sometimes believe I became a teacher by chance, but maybe it was always my fate. In either case, I’m fortunate. One of my professor’s suggested I join the TA program. I didn’t know if I had the time, could afford the low pay. I was certain I’d flubbed the interview. I walked away believing that I would never hear from them. But I did.
And even now, all these years later, I get to stand in front of the class and watch these young people grow and flourish before my eyes. I watch them struggle and see their eyes brighten when they’ve met the challenge. It’s a gift.
I occasionally complain, shake my head. The pandemic and now post pandemic has not been easy. The lack of appreciation. But – the students.
They are not perfect, they are not fully formed, but they are lovely humans just trying to adjust to life. There’s a lot on their shoulders, and they’ve seen so much darkness. Let’s teach them kindness, let’s encourage their open minds and praise their open hearts.
Imperfection, struggle, growth, change, and challenges met create the beautiful souls – and I get to witness that miracle!
Since we’re talking about love, let’s talk about Love’s bestie – Boundaries.
I suppose Boundaries are besties with Respect which, as I’ve said, goes hand in hand with Love. Maybe these guys are more than besties; they’re all in the same family, like kissing cousins.
I said in my post on UNCONDITIONAL, that I love my kids unconditionally. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about that. I would die for them. No questions asked.
But even unconditional love comes with boundaries.
I had a friend whose son was having some troubles with alcohol. The son would call her up at 2am (after the bar closed) and start blaming the mom for everything that had gone wrong in his life – based on what his mother had done wrong in raising him.
My friend asked, “what should I do. I have to work. I can’t get up at 2 or 3 am and talk him down from whatever trip he’s on.” I suggested my friend not answer the phone. She thought that was a horrifying prospect. How could she neglect her son like that? I suggested that she pick up, make certain it wasn’t an emergency, and say, “I will gladly talk to you about this tomorrow” and hang up. She wasn’t certain she could do that either.
Her son was 30 years old. He was a grown ass man. He should have known better than to call his working mother in the middle of the night.
If it happens once in awhile… If there’s an emergency… If her son was really distraught and needed to talk – that is totally different.
My phone is open to anyone who calls and is in need of help – any time. However, when my Australian friend calls at 3am, knowing full well that in my time zone it’s 3am, I am not up for a chat about the weather or to shoot the shit and he has gotten an earful.
The very next time my friend’s son called, which happened to be the very next night, my friend answered the phone near 4am, and asked her son if he was safe, if he was home, if it was an emergency, then told him to call her at a more appropriate time.
The son was pissed. The son didn’t talk to her for a week. But he also never called her in the middle of the night again. And, when he did call, he was in a less inebriated state and they were able to have a real conversation.
Sometimes we have to show others our boundaries. Tell them we love them – and I love my Australian friend – and remind them we have our own ideas of love, respect, and boundaries.
As parents, we need to teach our children these things. As adults, sometimes we have to remind those we interact with as they may have learned something different.
Think of a memory from childhood. What images do you remember? What stories do you tell?
When you take out a memory – do you or can you connect it to something more current? Why are you thinking about that? What brought it up? What did you learn from that memory? Or why do you enjoy it?
When you just take out a memory out and connect it to something present – you played with it, worked with it, in some way, possibly made it mean more or less, you colored it in, or made it pale in comparison.
Many Psychiatrists say every time we take a memory out – we change it, we try to make sense of it, we add details may have come from somewhere else. Many, many experts believe we have no pure memories. That they are all, in some way, corrupt.
According to Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, Professor at UCI who has published twenty-four books and more than six hundred papers, believes memories are reconstructed, not replayed. “Our representation of the past takes on a living, shifting reality,”… “It is not fixed and immutable, not a place way back there that is preserved in stone, but a living thing that changes shape, expands, shrinks, and expands again, an amoeba-like creature.”
How many of us know someone who remembers something different that we do? My sisters and I used to walk in the cool night air; one night, the middle sister saw a jaguar – the car, not the cat – and pulled the little ornament off. We started to walk away, and she instantly felt bad, so she turned back and placed it on the car near the windshield hoping the owner would see it and be able to repair it. Hey – we were teenagers – don’t hate us.
Now, when my sisters and I get together, my youngest sister remembers it differently, she remembers jumping up on the car and ripping it off and bringing it home. She laments losing it and wonders where it went. My middle sister and I just look at one another because that does not match up with our memory.
When writing we can change little things, play with the memories. But how much of the changing and playing with can we do to memories or memoir before we need to change the label from memoir to inspired by actual events?
And… I think the answer to that is – how much have you changed? Who is reading it? And are you going to get sued?
I have a piece coming out that I originally labeled as memoir – but I fought with myself about that label because it’s about my dead brother. In this memoir, I’m talking to him. Obviously, I’m playing with memories of our conversations, of who he is and what types of things he said. I had a conversation with the editor about this who said – do you want to make it clearer you’re talking to a ghost?
My brother, sadly, can’t sue me – he’s passed. No one can sue you from beyond the grave, but their families can sue if the memoir defames any of the family. This piece does not defame my brother, but is it memoir? Or is it “inspired by an actual event”?
The memoirist’s first line of defense is: The first amendment of our us constitution guarantees us the right to free speech –
EXCEPT – there are some exceptions like you can’t yell fire in a crowded movie theater, you can’t say bomb at the airport… and you can’t say Johnny Depp abused you without valid, verifiable evidence.
The first amendment does guarantee that we have the right to our opinion, so when we’re writing a memoir, mostly, that is what it is – our opinion of events as they happened. Therefore, in most cases, memoirists are safe from prosecution.
The two biggest issues writers of memoirs face are defamation and right to privacy lawsuits.
Say you’re writing a memoir about your experience. You and your friend had a wild night of partying, you’re say 17, did somethings that you didn’t even put in your diary for fear someone would find out – but you’ve decided to write about that night – for whatever reason, you learned a lesson from that experience, it’s passed the statute of limitations for prosecution – ideally, yes, that is your story and you can write about it – but, wait, your friend swore you to secrecy. You guys had a pact. If you write a memoir or personal narrative or op-ed with a character that has your friend’s name, some variation of that name, character traits, walks like or dresses like your friend, was in the same place as you and that person can be identified, you can be sued.
If you want to write that story, change the names, change the locations, change your friend’s character traits, age, or leave your friend out completely.
Or – get your friend’s permission – IN WRITING!
Augustun Bourroughs, author of Running with Scissors, wrote a memoir about growing up – he changed the names, but the family brought a lawsuit against him and the publisher alleging defamation and invasion of privacy. The author maintains that it was and is his opinion and he kept journals throughout his childhood, and even some public facts supported some of the author’s claims, but the family alleged that events were changed to make them more dramatic – the lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. The publisher had to change the label from memoir to book. And the author had to add a note – stating that he hadn’t meant harm and that the family’s memories are different than his own.
If you look at the Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls the youngest sister Maureen has the least written about her. She was at a friend’s house for most of the West Virginia portion – there is some verifiable facts of her time in New York – she tried to stab her mother, she was institutionalized, and then she’s off to California, and in the book, nothing else is stated about her. She had her right to privacy. So whether the author didn’t get permission or she was being respectful or her sister threatened to sue her – who knows. You can find information about the sister if you google – I did, but there seems to be limited information about her.
Our Gentle Sins has a character who is a recovering drug addict – I know a few. One of my friends asked me if he was the inspiration for the character of Jack. It’s actually fiction, but it is inspired by experiences of many people I’ve known or talked too. I felt it was an important story, but I would never use someone’s personal story who dealt with such personal struggles.
Drug addiction is a serious issue. Recovery is very personal. I admire those who are successfully maintaining their recovery. Jack is my tribute to them.
If you’re local – stop by and talk with me! Enjoy Our Gentle Sins – a fictional novel with inspiring characters recovering from whatever life has thrown at them!
You must be logged in to post a comment.