You pick up your pen and start writing.
You journal in the midst of your hard times.
A story soon unfolds and you give the juiciest of details. True tales involving love and hate, adventure and blunder, and perhaps even skeletons rattling out of the closet. You put your pen down to admire your writing.
It’s good….even dramatic. Your life could be a story! But you realize in horror that you have written about something the other “characters” in your story may hate.
Can you REALLY write about your ex, or your in-laws, or other sandpaper people? Read on for answers to that and other burning life story questions.
So…Can I Write about My Ex?
Of course, you can! Writing about your ex, your strange Aunt Sally, your crazy friends or anyone else in the context of YOUR life’s story is fair game. That’s the short answer….but here are a few matters to consider:
- DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT RIGHT NOW. Remember, your first draft is only for you. Feel free to write out your life events, energy, and emotions in candid detail just to get them all out on paper initially. This is usually done over many “freewrite” sessions where you needn’t worry about the final product. Refining and organizing the story comes later. You’ll draw on these initial impressions and emotions later on, so capturing the richest and most intense information up front is in your best interest.
- Consider the fact that you have control over who sees the final edited version. Not all life story writing is for publication. Perhaps it’s just a story for your immediate family. Many life story writers will write solely for themselves: to remember their history, to heal from horrible situations, and even to capture wonderful life moments they don’t want to forget. Whether you plan an audience of one or one million, you’re in control.
- It’s not illegal to write about your ex (or anyone else), as long as you don’t purposely tell untruths and you avoid defamation or invasion of privacy (more about this below). Memoir, personal essay, and other forms of life story writing express the writer’s point of view; sharing events unfolding as you experienced them. Since memory is imperfect, it’s generally understood that someone else’s memory of the events may be somewhat different.
I’m still scared…
If you wish to share a story that puts someone in a bad light or yourself in a tight position, an alternative could be using a pen name and changing the details of those involved.
Of course, this also takes away some of your key audience. You have so much to share that friends and relatives won’t know, but your story is told.
Occasionally a life story writer will share their idea or perspective with the actual characters involved before writing in order to head off an issue. I don’t usually recommend this option.
If you choose this, you find yourself with two possible scenarios:
- They say yes…and they love it, or they’re upset and request revisions – leaving you with an unauthentic piece; or
- They say no…and you respect their wishes to suppress the story, or you write it anyway and have drama on your hands. In either case, you take a gamble with your story.
How Truthful Can I be?
Life story writing is meant to be just that, stories from your life. It consists of your thoughts and memories. You can choose to divulge as much about your experiences as you feel you can handle. In fact, you should be fiercely honest writing your first draft.
In general, it’s better for your story to be more truthful; your readers will thank you for it. You will also thank yourself for it, as writing the truth is what offers you the healing and joy that is possible with lifestory writing.
On the other hand, if you intend to publish widely, other people involved in your story may be hurt. The First Amendment to the Constitution brings certain rights, but you could inadvertently injure a person’s reputation (defamation, invasion of privacy) and put yourself in a legal situation.
To avoid this be sure to tell the truth (either with proof, or “as you remember it”), include a disclaimer, and even consider changing enough of the details to disguise the person whom the character is based on.
~“The events depicted in this story are told as the author remembers them.” ~
A modest disclaimer example: “The events depicted in this story are told as the author remembers them.”
Augusten Burroughs, author of several very good but controversial memoirs, took creative liberty with his writing and included an author’s note in his memoir Dry: “This memoir is based on my experiences over a ten-year period. Names have been changed, characters combined, and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative re-creation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events.”
Fascinating further reading and listening on writing through tough times:
- The Sociopath’s Wife: Why Writing About Your Ex Can Change Your Life
- Writing Trumps Trauma
- Grace vs Abuse: 7 Questions to Define the Line
- Write Your Own Comeback Story