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  1. #1
    Senior Member Cheryl Morton's Avatar
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    Fiction-writing questions

    I love to read, but my interest is almost exclusively in nonfiction. I have read a few novels that I thoroughly enjoyed, and they've given me a lot of inspiration and direction with my own writing, but I still feel out of my element with fiction. I have no formal education in creative writing, so I'm trying to educate myself as I go. My questions may be very amateurish, but... well... I am an amateur at this point. LOL

    First, I've written a memoir and will probably attempt to have it published. I've made every effort to write it as accurately and honestly as possible, but much of it is drawn from memory. Is it necessary to verify the truthfulness of everything written, or is it generally accepted that if the story is written to the best of the author's recollection that it is accurate? In other words, if I'm not lying or fabricating events in the story but it later comes out that I was mistaken about a detail (for example, I state that an event occurred in 1989 because I thought it did, but it actually occurred in 1990) is this a big deal? My memoir is written from memory, and some details from childhood I cannot be certain about. Due to the relationship I have (don't have) with my family, I cannot verify everything I've written. I'm hoping this won't be a problem.

    Second, I used my own name and the names of my family members, because I felt like the story would lose credibility if I changed them. I also discuss some personal details about them. I describe, for example, my sister's quirky personality and a surgery that she had as a child. These details are entirely relevant, even necessary, to the story. Is it acceptable to discuss personal details about other people when writing a memoir?

    Third, I want this story to be authentic, but I also want to protect the identity of certain individuals. For some of the people, friends and others not closely related to me, I changed their names out of respect for their privacy. I also changed a few dates and minor details (very minor, none of which compromise the truthfulness or consistency of the story in any way) to obscure the identity of people who I do not want to be identified. Is this acceptable as long as I disclose it at the outset, or will this diminish the story's credibility?

    Forth, is the use of profanity acceptable, and if so how much? Are certain words off limits, or is there a general rule as to how much is ok?

    Fifth, do authors ever get sued by subjects in their memoirs for defamation of character? I know nothing about the legal ramifications of writing. If, for example, I accuse an individual of abuse, are there any potential legal consequences? How carefully do I have to tread?

    Cheryl

  2. #2
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    Hi Cheryl,

    To my knowledge:

    If you want to avoid being sued, you must make sure you have evidence to back up any claims you're making about other people. Libel is a deliberate falsehood intended to harm a person's reputation. There is no law against telling the truth, as long as you can prove it.

    Including other people's names, unless you have explicit consent from them, is very dangerous, and definitely invites libel suits.

    You keep talking about credibility - but you're not writing a newspaper article. It's a memoir. Changing little bits and pieces is par for the course, at least from what I understand. As long as you're not making up the entire story (as some memoir writers famously have done) then you're probably fine.

    Profanity is something to decide when you get to the agenting/publishing stage. They'll be able to help you finetune things like that, and they'll know what the audience is comfortable with.

    I'd do some google research on memoirs and libel. There's plenty of information out there. If you're serious about publishing, it might be worth consulting a lawyer on the small details.

  3. #3
    Senior Member Cheryl Morton's Avatar
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    Thank you, Emily. I'll have to do some research on that.

    Cheryl

  4. #4
    Senior Member Diane Theron's Avatar
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    Actually, my understanding is that changing bits and pieces is not acceptable in a memoir - which is really weird anyway, because truth is perception.

  5. #5
    Senior Member Cheryl Morton's Avatar
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    Hmm. I really need to research this. LOL

    Another question: If you were going to recommend a memoir to read based on craft and prose, what would it be? I need to read a good memoir or two.

    Thanks,

    Cheryl

  6. #6
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    Angela's Ashes.

  7. #7
    Senior Member Diane Theron's Avatar
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    I like reading autobio's and memoirs, but honestly cannot think of one that was awesome right now - I am sure I will wake up and know all of them at once!
    I try and stay away from celebs .. Sting - which was a huge dissappointment because I am a HUGE fan - I just could not connect, and kept reading and reading hoping that something was going to click. But no, and after reading it, know how NOT to write! His ghostie did him no favours in my opinion. Same with Joan Rivers - love her wit, but just could not get into her autobio.

  8. #8
    Senior Member Cheryl Morton's Avatar
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    I have a pretty strong aversion to most celebreties. It would have to be an incredibly interesting story for me to stay focused on the life of an actor or singer. Angela's Ashes sounds like a good start. Memoirs or novels that pit the protagonist against society in one way or another are more interesting to me, whether the confict be of a racial, religious, sexual, economical, or intellectual nature.

  9. #9
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    Hi, Cheryl,

    I thought I'd pop in with some recommendations for you. First, here is a list of recommended memoirs I give to students in my memoir writing workshop:

    Memoirs
    A Short List of Recommended Titles

    Paula, by Isabel Allende

    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

    Growing Up, by Russell Baker

    If Life is A Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? by Erma Bombeck

    The Hiding Place, by Carrie ten Boom

    Running With Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs

    Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression, edited by Robert Cohen

    Sido, by Colette

    Anatomy of An Illness as Perceived by the Patient, by Norman Cousins

    The Broken Cord, by Michael Dorris

    Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

    Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen

    Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History to the Present Time, by Frederick Douglass

    Diary of A Young Girl, by Anne Frank

    The Autobiography, by Benjamin Franklin

    I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can, by Barbara Gordon

    I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, by Hannah Green

    Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin

    A Drinking Life: A Memoir, by Pete Hamill

    An Unfinished Woman, by Lillian Hellman

    A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemmingway

    Cowboys Are My Weakness, by Pam Houston

    The Liar's Club: A Memoir, by Mary Karr

    Girl Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen

    Elia Kazan: A Life, by Elia Kazan

    On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

    The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of A Girlhood Among Ghosts, by Maxine Hong Kingston

    Dancing on My Grave, by Gelsey Kirkland

    A Year in Provence, by Peter Mayle

    Chickenhawk, by Robert C. Mason

    The Color of Water, by James McBride

    Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, by Mary McCarthy

    Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi

    Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest, by Sandra Day O'Connor

    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig

    First You Cry, by Betty Rollin

    The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat, by Oliver Sacks

    The Way of Perfection, by Saint Teresa of Avila

    Maus: A Survivor's Tale, by Art Spiegelman

    Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron

    Walden, by Henry David Thoreau

    This Boy's Life: A Memoir, by Tobias Wolff

    Take your time and do some research on these books on Amazon. Some of them are humorous, while others are pretty dark. All of them are enduring works, with solid evidence of craft and story-telling.

    And, I want to pass on a book on the craft of writing memoir that is absolute stellar:

    Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir, by Sue William Silverman. Sue is a friend of mine who is also a wonderful writer and teacher. Her first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the 1995 AWP award for creative nonfiction. Her second memoir, Love Sick: One Woman's Guide Through Sexual Addiction, was made into a Lifetime TV movie.

    When you write memoir, you use the same fiction-writing techniques you would for a novel. You need dialog, metaphor and simile, good description, strong characters, and a story arc. But the story is based in truth. That said, I would also tell you that memory is fallible. Ask three family members about the time Aunt Sally got drunk and passed out at the Christmas dinner and you will get three different versions. When writing memoir, you tell the truth to the best of your knowledge (and research). Sue has some excellent advice in her craft book on how to manage the blurred memories/facts. The difference between Frey's book and the inexact truth of other memoir is that Frey fabricated his "truth," intentionally making up events to make his story more dramatic. That isn't the same as the inexact memory of a conversation.

    Hope that helps.

    Jeanne

  10. #10
    Senior Member C Bets's Avatar
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    Angela's Ashes was a remarkable book, imo, albeit very depressing and quite disturbing at times. I second that recommendation. Reading Lolita in Tehran was excrutiating for me. I tried, hard, to get into that book and just couldn't. Perhaps it was the subject matter, but I didn't find it very interesting whatsoever. Out of Africa, loved.

    C

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