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A Writing Conundrum – Writers Weigh In

In reading another blogger’s post this morning, a single phrase sparked a memory I thought I might write about.

Here’s the conundrum. How much weight do you give when you write about real people knowing  it may reflect poorly on them?

People are multi-faceted. Each of us spun from threads both positive and negative. I can have a negative memory with someone, but may hold more positive recollections about that person than negative. But the readers might not get that impression.

Am I too concerned about casting a negative light? This particular person is deceased, but that does not matter in my mind. They were still a person deserving of grace, aren’t they?

I cannot ‘change the name to protect the innocent’ because the story would reveal their identity.

I can hear my grandmother’s voice in my head – “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

I am very interested in your opinions.

37 thoughts on “A Writing Conundrum – Writers Weigh In”

  1. You are so kind and caring. I personally feel a detail that sheds a poor light can still be written about if it is pertinent to the story. Maybe I am just not as kind. I too grew up with the same phrase. But my writing would be very limited if I could ONLY talk about positives. Good luck with your decision.

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  2. I have been guilty of writing bad things about people in my past. I didn’t name them, but it was obvious who they were. In only one case, I was tracked down by a person who told me how hurtful I was. I could have removed the offending paragraph by editing, but because it was true, I decided to leave it in.
    I think we have to ‘stick by’ the things we publish, whether the person is alive or dead.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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    1. I would not write anything necessarily hurtful (even though it may seem that way) but rather truthful and something that may have hurt me. I am not playing tit for tat, but these actions once done become part of my story.

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  3. Most of us are probably safe because the chances of family actually reading our blogs are pretty slim! However I have cringed ( and laughed ) sometimes when a blogger writes a negative story about a friend or relative. I do not know the person, but if the real person read the blog they would certainly know it was about them even if their name is not used!

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    1. Most people would never read it or know who it was in reference to, but of course there are a few that might. That is the puzzling piece.

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  4. Saw your comment on BeetleyPete’s blog about memoir writing, which is what I also do. I do write about real people, but names are changed including mine, details are changed, stories are changed using tricks like time compression, composite events and composite characters. So I can write about school bullies and workplace malpractice, for example.. This is what distinguishes memoir from history or autobiography. Salman Rushdie said that what actually happened is less important than what the audience can be persuaded to believe – although I don’t go that far usually.

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    1. Definitely food for thought. I wrestle with the actions others chose that ultimately impacted my life. If that becomes part of my story, then I feel it is mine to tell. If that is truly how I feel, why do I wrestle with the decision?

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  5. I first follow my daughter’s sage advice when I started posting:”never put anything on line that you aren’t willing for the whole world to see for all time.” This really has cut down putting out anything that might be too close to unpleasant truth.

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  6. I have been reading a lot about memoir writing (and have signed up for a Memoir Writing Boot Camp). For this genre, many authors say you need to be truthful or you are not being fair to the reader. It’s also likely they will see through attempts to cover up less flattering facets and credibility will suffer. That said, I think we also have to be fair and not use writing about people or incidents to air our grievances. Good luck!

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    1. The class sounds wonderful. Is it online? My story would not be to air grievances but to illustrate the hard times I experienced and how they changed the direction of my life. Thanks for sharing another point of view.

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      1. The class is online and it started on Tuesday night. It’s not free so I was really hoping I wouldn’t be disappointed but so far, so good! This week’s presenter knew her stuff and was good at communicating her knowledge. Here’s the link to the group that offers the class: https://magicofmemoir.com/

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  7. I blog anonymously and very few “real world” people I know of or read my blog, so I don’t feel any compunction when it comes to writing about real people knowing that it may reflect poorly on them. I won’t provide a name (unless it’s a public figure, like Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell), nor how I know them. But I’m not worried about hurting them because they likely don’t read my blog.

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  8. I avoid identifying anyone directly. In my recent blog posts about my days in public and education libraries I have had second thoughts about some details before publication and removed some that would directly identify an institution or branch, but haven’t changed any details to mislead. Nevertheless, I’ve been contacted by one former colleague who recognised our training ground many decades ago. I doubt many former colleagues read my blog anyway, but I’ve tried not to say anything actionable about anyone who might want to prove I mean them.

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    1. Bu actionable, do you mean legal avenues, Cathy? I am trying to decide how to wordsmith something very personal and not lose the impact of the story.

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      1. I’m (probably) exaggerating there. I do try not to upset anyone who might recognise themself in my accounts (unless I think they deserve it. Even then, I’ve been back and pulled my punches before scheduling the post). By not actually naming anyone (or anywhere) I can always deny that was who I was writing about!

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  9. Since many of my blog stories are true events of show biz people it would be silly not to name them and let it up to the reader’s imagination, even if the story might not be fan-club flattering. Also it shows that they are human.
    However with friends, relatives, coworkers, I might just use their first name or nickname. They are not celebs who live with things written about them.

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  10. I struggled with this a lot when writing my memoir. One of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, wrote “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” I don’t 100% agree with that. But I wanted to include some challenges from our past relationships to show what we learned and the baggage we overcame. Plus, my editor kept urging me to give more detail about what happened. Names were changed of course, and I published (and blog) under my maiden name as another layer of privacy. Before I published my book, I went back and softened the most negative descriptions, writing less about what other people did and more about how David and I felt on our parallel journeys and how we overcame the challenges working on personal growth. Sometimes I think about rewriting the memoir – softening the negative actions of others even more and republishing in my married name. But the main thing is what is the purpose of what we are writing.

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    1. JoAnna, I read this several times. I like what you said about softening. I understand the Anne Lamott quote and I feel much the same, but I think the story can be told without damaging memories or legacies. Useful food for thought. Thank you.

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  11. This is a tough one that I continue to struggle with, walking the razor’s edge most times. You want to be honest, but you don’t want to hurt feelings. In the end, be true to the story or maybe don’t tell it, I think.

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  12. I think it’s great that you’re considering the person before posting anything about them. I often consider, if something were written about me, would I be okay with it. If I wouldn’t be, then I leave it out.

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