Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Writing About Real People (guest blog #2, with CONTEST!)

BIO: Audrey Beth Stein is the author of the memoir Map, which was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award (the Oscars of queer books). She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College and is a two-time national prizewinner in the David Dornstein Memorial Short Story Contest. She teaches memoir and novel development at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Direct links to order Map can be found at

GIVEAWAY: Audrey will be giving away one copy of Map to a lucky blog reader chosen at random. Enter by commenting on this post by July 2nd, midnight EST. (That's BEFORE the long weekend, people. I'll announce the winner when I get back on July 6th.) Anyone who intelligently references and links content from Audrey’s websites (start browsing at or in one of their comments will be entered twice. Fine print: Winner must be at least 14 years old and must provide a U.S. mailing address upon being chosen or an alternate winner will be selected.

PERSONAL STATEMENT: Audrey's memoir made me cry. The same chapter that caused her mom to cry (in a good way!) when she read it, in fact. It's really a great piece of writing, and I highly recommend it. Now... onto the guest post!


When I teach writing classes, whether memoir or novel development, invariably someone asks about the legal ramifications of writing about real people. I worried about the legal stuff myself for quite a while, and then someone pointed out that here in the United States anyone can sue you for anything. Even if you’re completely in the right and have documented proof, it’s the mere existence of a lawsuit that wreaks havoc and drains resources. I’d also read somewhere that a lot of times when people sue doctors for malpractice, what they really want is an acknowledgement of hurt, and an apology. So I made a decision to concentration on the moral issues in writing about real people, and let fate handle the rest.

Our writing has consequences—often good, sometimes harmful. Not writing has its own consequences. There are some people who argue art above all, but I disagree. We are human beings first, living in the world and in community with other people. Our art grows out of that, out of the relationship between our self and the world we inhabit. And thus I believe we have dual loyalties.

Do whatever you need to do to get the story out, I tell my students. Lock up the manuscript, give yourself permission to burn the pages later, write in secret in the middle of the night, eat lots of chocolate, whatever. You owe yourself the space to explore and express your truth, to get it onto the page without anyone’s censors. If you’re not doing that, what kind of artist are you? But once it’s out, I say, and you are ready to share it with others, then you have a responsibility to consider the potential impact of your words. If your story is going to drive a reader one step closer to suicide, cause a family rift, or tarnish someone’s character, you don’t escape responsibility by hiding under terms like “artist” or “truth.”

It’s not for me to make anyone else’s decisions—I wrestle enough with my own—but I advocate for those decisions to be made thoughtfully, maturely, bravely, with respect and kindness for ourselves and for the others who will be touched by our stories in many different ways. Here are a few resources you might find helpful as you do so: The Courage to Write by Ralph S. Keyes; “Peering at Privacy in Creative Nonfiction” by Kaylene Johnson (in the September 2004 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle); and the memoir Half the House by Richard Hoffman.

In the case of my own memoir, Map, I rewrote scenes with minor characters over and over until my writing group saw my own vulnerabilities coming through rather than the hurtful descriptions I’d camouflaged them with. Over a period of nine-and-a-half years and sixteen revisions, I reached out to each of the main characters with an offer to read the manuscript. “Tyler” helped clarify facts and reminded me of a couple of events that were important to include. My parents confirmed that I’d captured the coming out scenes accurately. “A.J.” sent a vote of confidence and encouraged me to tell even more. “Jake,” reading the final draft, thanked me for bringing back some good memories. It took me a long time, though, to get in touch with one major character--my first love, “Catrina”--and even though I had changed names and identifying details, even though I had written from truth and revised with care, I was nervous. What would she say? Would she--my biggest fear, dubious in retrospect, stemming from my twenty-one-year-old insecurities--ask me not to publish, and what would I do if she did?

(This is the point where I refer you to Map for the rest of the story. Isn’t shameless self-promotion the point of a guest blog?)

Amazingly, when it came to writing my (as-yet-unpublished) novel, the decisions were in some ways even harder. Memoir is at least straightforward—you’re either writing about someone or you aren’t. But fiction? Where characters inspired by real people or amalgams of real people transform into fully-realized fictional entities? Where you use this made-up stuff to get at the truth of your life and the lives around you?

I was terrified I’d hurt my mom. And I was terrified that my fear of hurting her would stunt my own growth.

In order to find the book I needed to write, to delve deep enough to reach the emotional truth, to use my words to help me understand my family, I gave myself permission to work on the novel for an entire decade and still destroy the results at the end.

I certainly couldn’t have made such a pact if this was my first book, or if I didn’t already have a failed novel under my belt. And I knew the odds of me actually turning a manuscript into garden compost after so long were rather slim. But it gave me the room I needed for the next eight years of writing. The room my characters needed to become whole. The room my novel needed to become about much more than its beginnings.

I still don’t want to hurt my mom. But I’ve grown enough through these eight years to be ready to have the conversations, and now that I’ve found my own voice in the family through this novel, I want to hear hers in response. Is the book done? I don’t know. After she’s read it, I might know. I might have more to say.

How do you navigate responsibility to your writing and to the people around you? How do you get the hard stuff onto the page? When and how do you share it? What compromises have you made, and is there anything you’d do differently next time?


  1. Great guest post. A phrase from it should be the subtitle of every memoir: Written from Truth and Revised with Care.

    I can also really relate to this: I was terrified I’d hurt my mom. And I was terrified that my fear of hurting her would stunt my own growth.

    How people get past that has always been an interest of mine, and to maybe help people reading this, or those in your classes, here's a few quotes that have helped when the doubts start to silence what one needs to say.

    What I couldn’t anticipate was how good it would feel to be able to represent my whole self. It was a big change not having to go through the motions that were required in keeping this to myself. And it became very liberating.
    - Michael J. Fox

    I’m a pretty good chameleon, so I could emulate who I needed to emulate. Underneath there was probably the belief that it wasn’t enough to be myself. But there came a time when I knew I was gonna have to cross the line.
    - Shawn Colvin

    Writing was the most important thing and publishing was secondary... Anything that would happen in the public round was separate from what was happening in my private discovery.
    - Melanie Rae Thon

    And finally, Meg Tilly fictionalized her childhood of abuse in her first novel, Singing Songs, but found the weight of keeping the secret too much:

    I spent the whole book tour afraid. I didn’t enjoy any part of it because I was terrified that somebody would find out the truth. Terrified.

    But now, coming out now, I was nervous. I wrote to everybody, or called the ones that were talking to me, and said I’m not going to lie about my life anymore. I love you all very much. I won’t talk about your experiences or what happened to you but I need to tell the truth about my own. I was going on book tour with Gemma, and I didn’t want to have to lie when they said well why do you write about this?

    Two-thirds of my family support me. One-third don’t speak to me and I’m probably as good as dead. One of my stepsisters wrote back and said, I’m really proud of you.

    - Meg Tilly

  2. Thanks, maine character! I love the quotes you chose... I think I'll borrow them.

  3. I was accepted to Emerson College. . . Went to UCF instead. Odd choice with difficult ramifications. . . I'd like to share my memoir when i am done reading yours, more maybe take a workshop to help complete it. I got past the "real people" problem by changing names. I will use a pseudonym as well.

  4. "Odd choice with difficult ramifications" -- now THAT is a phrase with a story behind it! Stephanie, I'm curious how it would feel to publish a memoir under a pseudonym. I plan to teach my memoir workshop again at the CCAE next winter or spring (I am teaching novel development in the fall) and would love to see you there if you find yourself in the Boston area.

  5. I don't write non-fiction -- I write romance. I would say romance authors have a fine line to walk - with whom do you share the fact that you write "smut?" Some will admire you for finishing a novel -- some will think that it's trash and so are you.

    For myself, not only do I write delightful "trash" (said with a wink - my writing is not garbage, thankyouverymuch), but I write over the top, funny "trash" that even other romance writers cock an eyebrow at. Verily, I am a weirdo of a different color. (Maybe plaid?) Most of the time I feel the confidence to love my unique voice, but sometimes it gets to me.

    Flying your freak flag takes a heap o' guts. Brava, Audrey!

  6. Wow. What amazing heartfelt words. Thanks for your honesty, and thanks to CKHB for hosting. :)

  7. Audrey,

    Your post is so honest. I was going to say that I don't write memoir, and then I realized that isn't true. I'm currently writing memoir as part of a larger non-fiction work, but in vignettes. And I have at one point or another thought about how someone would feel if I was portraying them in a particular fashion. I agree that revision and re-revision until you are comfortable with your story and whatever consequences it leads to is the only real solution.

    Thanks for your post.

  8. Thanks, Lisa... all the best with your project. Sounds intriguing.