Be careful if you want to write your memoirs—or even just share stories about people you know. These mistakes and tips for writing about family and friends will help you stay out of trouble.
A reader inspired me to share these tips on how to write about people you know. She commented on my blog post How Do You Write Your Memoirs Without Hurting Your Family?
“I would like to write a memoir but I think if I revealed my deepest anguishes it would cause nothing but pain. Having said that my mom is actually encouraging me to write a book! But if I wrote what I really experienced she would be crushed. I would never want that! Every family has its problems. Can I write it under a different name to myself to protect someone I love? And also change their names?”
Yes, those are time-tested tips for writing about someone you know. I also found some additional ideas—including mistakes and advice—about writing about friends, family, colleagues and other people you know.
Winifred Madison wrote a chapter called “When You Write About People You Know” in the 1990 edition of The Writer’s Handbook. She shared a controversial story that prompted her to write about telling other people’s stories.
Winifred’s friend Stephen told her about some incredible events in his life.
“I listened with compassion and disbelief at his appalling revelations, yet my wicked writer’s mind was already projecting his dilemma into a novel,” she writes. “This behavior may be regrettable, but that’s how writers are much of the time.”
When Winifred and Stephen parted, he asked her to keep everything he said confidential.
“Of course,” Winifred said. “But you wouldn’t mind if I wrote a novel about it, would you? Maybe a novella? Maybe a little short story?”
Stephen looked so stricken, she said, that she had to reassure him that she was joking. She promised she’d never write about what he told her…but she really wanted to tell his story. As much as Winifred wanted to write about someone she knew, she knew it’d be a mistake.
How tempting it is to put these ready-made characters and juicy stories into life! But do we as writers have the right to tell other someone’s story? Nope. Where it gets sticky, however, is when our story involves other people. Sure, we can change their names, but that won’t fool the people we know.
This brings us back to my reader’s dilemma about writing her life story. If she wrote her memoirs, changing her mom’s name wouldn’t fool anyone. In her case, it’d be a mistake to write about her own mother and pretend she wasn’t. A memoir isn’t (usually) fiction.
So how do you write about people you know—friends, family, neighbors—without hurting them?
Either you find something else to write about (read 7 Ideas for Writers Who Have No Idea What to Write About) or you
10 Mistakes to Avoid and Tips for Writing About People You Know
“Since first novels are frequently autobiographical, it is not surprising for a new writer to vent,” writes Winifred in “When You Write About People You Know.” “Parents are particularly vulnerable targets, and there is little they can do about it. Parent-bashing is a shameful, immature sport, and and it can boomerang, making readers dislike the writer.”
Family members and friends of a writer deserve sympathy, adds Winifred. Many people who know writers live in fear that one day the writer will not only write about them but also reveal their flaws, weaknesses and secrets.
And this, fellow scribe, leads me to my first tip on how to write about someone you know.
Mistake #1: Not knowing your true intentions for writing this story
As a writer, you must question your own motives and values. Ask yourself why you want to tell this story. What good does it bring? What difference might it make to your readers? Are you writing to heal your own broken heart or process grief from your past? Are you building a case against a boss, coworker, or even a partner?
It’s a mistake to write about people you know if you’re writing to expose them, air their dirty laundry, share their secrets or point out their flaws. It’s a mistake to include someone’s worst or most embarrassing moments in your story if you’re trying to find closure or heal your past.
Be clear about your motive and purpose when you write about someone you know. This can get tricky; it’s impossible for any of us to see ourselves clearly! One way is to make a list of 10 reasons why you want to write about this friend or family. If you only have one or two reasons, then you’re not clear on your own motives.
Mistake #2: Not realizing people will think you’re writing about them (when you’re not)
“Another hazard of writing is that sometimes a friend or family member may accuse a writer of describing him in a certain character when nothing of the sort was intended,” writes Winifred in her chapter on how to write about someone you know.
This happened to me just the other day! A reader thanked me for including her in 4 Examples of Good Writing From Professional Writers. Not only was I NOT thinking of her when I wrote that blog post, I didn’t even know she wanted to write.
People’s stories have a lot of overlap. Three of my friends, for instance, are going through a divorce. Their circumstances are similar, they have the same number of children, and they all live near me. If I write about divorce I run the risk that they’ll think I’m writing about them.
Don’t be surprised if your friends, family and other people might think you’re writing about them.
Mistake #3: Assuming people will recognize themselves in your writing
This is the exact opposite of my previous tip on how to write about someone you know. I’ve never had this experience but Winifred shares an amusing story in “When You Write About People You Know”:
“A certain writer of juvenile fiction used her sister as the model for a disagreeable spinster librarian and then, feeling guilty about it, lovingly dedicated the book to her sister. To her amazement, her sister thanked her effusively, thinking she had been the model for the attractive young heroine!”
Just like we can’t see our own intentions and motives clearly, we also can’t see our own personalities and characteristics.
Never assume anything about how readers—and people you know—will respond to your writing.
Mistake #4: Thinking a great story is “off limits” because it’s confidential
As a writer, your job is to share stories that are uplifting, inspiring, entertaining, helpful or beautiful in some way. They make the world a better place. Unfortunately, the best stories always include conflict and problems. Families fight, spouses break up, siblings hate each other, coworkers are toxic, neighbors start wars—you know what I’m talking about.
The worst, most painful stories contain seeds of hope, beauty, love and peace. If you were told a story in confidence, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can’t write about it.
5 Tips for Writing Stories That Are Confidential, Painful, or Possibly Hurtful
“If you are haunted by a remarkable but confidential story, there may be one other way to handle it safely,” writes Winifred. “Chances are that such a story contains a universal truth that appeals to you. It is also possible that you may feel you have been chosen to receive such a story, and you would be ungrateful to reject it outright.”
Tip #1: Write privately now. Show publicly later (maybe)
Write down the details—not for public to read—and you lock it away in a secret vault. Do not share the story in any way. Just make notes, and hide them away for possible future use.
Tip #2: Wait for the right time to write
Wait until the person who told you the Greatest Story Ever no longer cares if you write about them. They might die (we all do), heal from the past, realize how positive and inspiring their story would be to others, change their mind and decide to hire you to write their memoir. Then not only do you get to write about someone you know, you get paid.
Speaking of getting paid as a writer: Freelance Writing Pay Rates for Newspapers and Magazines.
Tip #3: Follow in writer Truman Capote’s footsteps
“You can be tough,” Winifred writes in “When You Write About People You Know”, “state a few platitudes about art and truth, and go ahead and write, no matter what happens. However, if you do, there is the possibility that you will never be able to go home again.”
One of the most shocking examples of writers writing about people—without their permission or knowledge—is Truman Capote. H was a brilliant and highly respected author who was also very popular with the rich social set in his day. Prominent people who thought Capote was their friend confided in him. He told their secrets, and was completely ostracized. Do you think he cared?
This reminds me of Anne Lamott’s quote, “If people didn’t want me to write about them, they should’ve been nicer to me.”
Which reminds me of a blog post from the archives: The Best Writing Quotes From Capote, King, Lamott, Orwell and More.
Tip #4: Learn how other writers share their personal family stories
In When Your Sister Cuts You Out of Her Life: Coping With Family Estrangement I share how I coped when my sister said she didn’t want to talk to me ever again.
I also wrote a book called Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back. It was published by a traditional publisher – I even had a literary agent – but I just can’t bring myself to market and sell it.
Tip #5: Trust the story to find the right writer
Do you deeply, desperately want to write a story that involves someone you know? Let it rest in your subconscious for at least a year. If it’s a truly important piece of writing that absolutely must be written, then it will find the right writer.
If you can allow a story to be told by any writer because the truth of underneath the events of the story is more important than who writes it, then your motives are pure. Then it’s not about you deciding how to write about people you know. It becomes about sharing beauty, love, joy, peace, hope and encouragement with the world.
What do you think, fellow scribe? How will you write about family, friends and people you know?