Only child revisits writing a memoir

Only Child reads a memoir excerpt at a CAA Toronto Branch public reading.

To tell or not to tell that is the question facing memoir writers. I’ve touched on this before in a previous post

However,  it’s worth revisiting with some more info. The topic has come up recently in one of the LinkedIn writing groups I belong to.

1. Do you let family members see what you are writing?

2. Do you even tell them you are writing a memoir?

3. Should you get legal advice before you get an agent or publisher or self-publish?

All can provide conundrums but the first two often roll into the third point. It can depend on your content, for example if you’ve been dismissed from a job for cause and you are going to write a memoir of your time at the company, yes, get legal advice. Is there anything in your memoir that could be construed as slander or libel? For this one, it is a good idea to get someone else to read it so you get objective feedback. As a freelance book editor, I have to scrutinize what I edit for possible copyright and libel problems. But, and this is a big “but,” I always put in the disclaimer that I am not a lawyer and it might be best if they have a lawyer check the manuscript over after it is edited. For one memoir I was editing, I took another step- I suggested that a chapter and parts of another chapter had to go because even layperson me could see that the author would be in big doo-doo if he let that get published. He was self-publishing so relying on the wisdom of a trade publisher wasn’t an option. He agreed with me and I removed the offending material. I also suggested he take the edited manuscript to a lawyer specializing in libel and he did. About a page and a half needed to be tackled – some removed and some needed the wording changed.

You really don’t want to be sued for libel. Depending on where you live, the person being sued may have to prove they did not libel anyone and that can take on many branches as well as be darn expensive.

1. and 2. points tie in together. To help, here are my guidelines from what I’ve experienced from getting some family flak and asking other memoir writers.

a) Consider if you will need genealogy help and/or family story info (including stories and documents) in your research. If you don’t tell your family what you are doing they may wonder why all of a sudden you are asking questions about Aunt Maude or Uncle Bob.

b) Remember that everyone’s memory of an event and/or person is subjective. What cousin Clare may remember about that infamous argument between Aunt Maude or Uncle Bob at the family barbecue 30 years ago may differ from your version. How to get around this? I use a disclaimer in the beginning of my memoir that reads in part:

“Interactions between myself and my parents, other family members, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, etc. are as true as my memory recollects. I have taken a bit of liberty with dialogue as that is something you don’t always remember word-for-word. But the actual connections that instigated the dialogue happened.”

(Excerpted from You Can Go Home – Deconstructing the Demons, Copyright 2011 Sharon Crawford)

I also use pseudonyms for all but my parents, one grandfather, and me. Some memoir writers change a few of the details but I’m not sure how truthful that is. Another way around this is to narrate some of the different viewpoints of the specific incident – although you don’t want to do that too much or the memoir could become tedious to read.

c) Showing a chapter to family members. This one is a two-sided issue. Singer Anne Murray showed all her subjects the content in her memoir that concerned each of them so as not to offend. That’s a bit drastic to me. But, you might want to consider showing one or any chapter (or part of a chapter) where you want to check  your facts – like dates, who was present. But be careful here. It needs to be presented as an “I’m just checking the facts about this incident…”

Bottom line – each individual memoir writer has to decide for himself or herself. But I would let your family know you are writing a memoir, briefly what the focus is, and perhaps ask if anyone has any concerns. You can always use pseudonyms. And if you have even a smidgen that there might be something libelous in your memoir – get a libel lawyer expert to read it.

And for those in the Toronto, Ontario, Canada area (shameless self-promo here) I will be teaching another Memoir Writing workshop for another branch of the Toronto Public Library, the Gladstone/Bloor branch, 630 p.m. March 31. Check out my website and/or the Toronto Public Library http://

I’d like to read what others have to say here. Please comment.



Only Child Writes


1 Comment

Filed under Family, Libel in Memoir Writing, Memoir writing, Only child, Only child memoir

One response to “Only child revisits writing a memoir

  1. If it will help relieve some anxieties about writing a memoir…. I will share what I did in writing mine. I didn’t let family members read it, but they did know I was writing it. No one said “Now don’t tell about such and such”, so I felt free to write whatever I wanted. I didn’t get legal advice. I complained about a couple of bosses, and although I didn’t name them, I did name the company, so anyone who knew us back then would easily recognize them. However, I doubt that any of those people will ever read my book. In any event what I said was truth and I don’t think you can be sued for liable for telling the truth… not as I saw it…. but how it was.
    My publisher was I found the peole there very professional and nice to work with. I kept costs to a minimum and enjoying the fact that people who don’t even know me have purchased my book from and have written good reviews. Part of the reason I wrote it was to create a template for others to encourage them to write their own memoirs and I purposely wrote 30 chapters in the style of a novel, and the stories are all true.

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