“All I knew was that I had to tell the truth.”
That’s a quote from Maya Angelou, and it’s often referenced by writers who are steadfastly dedicated to telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in their writing.
The impulse is easy to relate to. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, most writers pull from their own experience for inspiration, and unless you were raised in a fallout shelter, your personal experiences probably involve other people. Real, live people, who might actually—gulp—read what you wrote about them someday.
And what if they don’t take kindly to the way you’ve represented them on paper? What if they grumble and object and emphatically deny having said or done some of the things you are fairly certain they did say and do?
Some writers attempt to circumvent the whole issue by simply changing a character’s name and a few key identifying characteristics. But this ain’t gonna fool anyone who is reading closely. Never underestimate a person’s ability to recognize themselves on the page —even when they saunter on to the scene in disguise.
When a writer encounters objections to a particular bit in a particular piece of writing, he or she has but three choices: cut it, change it, or leave it be.
A few questions to ask yourself as you decide which is the best option:
Can I back up my claims? Fiction writers get a pass on accuracy checking, and might simply remind protesters that they’re describing a poetic reality, but if you write non-fiction, you might need to corroborate your words. Is any of it in writing? Can you track down someone else who was there? And keep in mind: our memories can be shockingly inaccurate, so don’t get too cocky right off the bat. You may swear up and down that you recall verbatim the eulogy your sister gave at a funeral, only to track down a video of the service and discover that she wasn’t even there. People misremember. Even people who normally remember quite well.
Is the request reasonable? People are sensitive to the ways they are memorialized, especially when their less-flattering moments are forever enshrined in print or web for all to see (and judge). And writers, too, are sensitive to being critiqued, especially when they’ve worked hard on a piece and believe the telling to be factual. Proceed with pragmatism: is the person questioning your recollection of a silly-but-unflattering anecdote, or are they insisting that you scrap a story entirely? Can you make the change without sacrificing the integrity of your piece or needing to rework large chunks of it? If not, you may need to prepare your counter-argument. And as a rule, expect way more pushback when you use direct quotes.
Can we compromise? Yes, yes, I know: your writing is your art, your words the chicken-scratch equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, your finished pieces a sincere and earnest gift to posterity. But let’s be realistic, here: nobody writes in a vacuum, and if the person in question is important in your life, you may need to compromise in order to maintain the piece. If the complainant is a family member, the implications of failing to do so could be even more dramatic and long-lasting. Can you change a name, omit some of the information, or even acknowledge in the piece that this person remembers things differently? At the very least, can you sit down with this person and explain to them, calmly and sincerely, where you are coming from? Sometimes, they’ll even be the one to offer up a reasonable middle ground.
What’s at stake? It’s never just a story; it’s your craft, your time, your hard work. But some pieces matter more to us as writers than other pieces do. Take some time to clearly identify what’s at stake, both in the piece and in your relationship. The stakes might be low—you’re recounting the sordid tale of a friend who peed her pants on the bus during a third-grade field trip to the zoo—and they may be sky-high—you’re writing a first-person memoir about how the bus driver on that field trip turned out to be a convicted child molester. What’s on the line? Will the piece lose something significant if you cut it? Will your relationship with this person be forever changed if you don’t? Consider these questions carefully.
What’s more important – the piece or the person? This is not a trick question; sometimes, as Ms. Angelou says, telling the truth absolutely matters more than anything else. No matter the consequence, and even when the person asking you to reconsider is somebody you love quite a lot. Is this piece your ticket to literary fame and fortune, or is it a blog entry? Is this a story you can’t imagine taking to your grave, like, the story you’ve been trying to figure out how to tell for half of your life, or is it simply a humorous piece you pounded out on a Tuesday afternoon in order to blow off some creative steam? All writing is not created equal. Be honest with yourself about how much the piece and the person truly matter. Weigh one against the other, then steel yourself, pick a course, make your decision known to the involved parties, and move the hell on. There’s little room for regret in the aftermath of a carefully gamed out decision, even when it’s a hard one. Especially when it’s a hard one.