Writing about other peoples’ lives

Posted by Ann Evans in Being a writer, writing a memoir, writing about other people, Writing your story | 1 comments

In Daring to Date Again, I write about my own life and other peoples’ lives, thus running into legal or moral issues about what to include in the story. The book is about what happened when I started to date at sixty, and I met most of the men involved through dating sites, so there were hundreds of emails. After exchanging emails, I met some of the men, but most of them I never met in person. I am forever entitled to write about my own experiences, but those men wrote about the regrets and problems of present or past relationships, details about their lives that they would not like others to know about, and in some cases, the very fact that we were in touch would have been compromising.

I had to proceed on the premise that a lot of people might read the book; writing with the idea that “nobody will ever read it” would have been crippling. After publication, after a lawsuit has been filed, it’s too late to retract. One of the men I wrote about is a lawyer who treasures his privacy so much that he avoided even writing emails. I took particular care to change all the details about him – what he looked like, where he worked and came from, and so on.

On the other hand, some recent memoirs have been discredited because they were partly fiction, so for protection I have an overflowing carton containing printouts of hundreds of emails supporting the authenticity of the facts and people discussed in the book. Since this is the twenty-first century, there was not a single physical letter in an envelope.

I couldn’t use long excerpts from emails without the writer’s permission, even if I didn’t use the sender’s real name, or if he had died. It was so tempting – the emails gave a whiff of the personality of the sender that was better shown than told about.

Emails can be anonymous for as long as the sender wishes.  There is no postmark. I didn’t know where my correspondents lived or even if I had their real names. Many used only their first name. Sometimes we only shared a single email. I sent a waiver to the policeman who was my first relationship in twelve years. We had kept in touch by phone even after we both married other people. He said sure he would sign it, but he never did, then apologized for not doing it. I used short quotes from the emails I needed for the story, which is acceptable.

In order to use one of my favorite poems, The World Seen By Moonlight, by Jane Hirshfield. I wrote the publisher asking for a waiver. Hirshfield herself responded, saying how delighted she was that I wanted to use more than just a snippet. The publisher sent me a waiver form and wrote that I would have to wait a month or so for a response. They would let me know the cost involved. I used a snippet. With regret. I received a waiver from the daughter of the author of the poem used as an introduction.

Some men had lied or behaved badly, and I would have relished using their real names, though the guy from Texas was such an asshole that I doubt his neighbors and family need my book to realize that. The man who said he and his wife had decided to have an open marriage when she had said no such thing will have to find his own hell (which, according to him, was his marriage).

People ask me how I found the courage to sally out into the world as I did. They wouldn’t suspect how cowed I was by my own mother. I might not have written it if she had been alive, though I accepted that my children would read it at some point, and the happy ending to the story, my husband Terry, has read it. The book is not as salacious as lots of other books, and those authors have children. They also have mothers, but oh well.

In the end, a writer’s obstacles are more within her than in the law or even the rules of civilized behavior. Here’s Annie Dillard’s advice:

One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Don’t hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The very impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful; it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

 

 

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Comments (1)
  1. Joan Price says:

    Very interesting, Ann. These are important concerns for memoir writing: How do I tell the truth while protecting the right to privacy of the people I want to write about — especially if they behaved badly? Thanks for sharing how you handled it.

    I love the Annie Dillard quote!

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Life went on

Life went on again after Daring to Date Again: A Memoir ended, so I began this wide-ranging blog about life as a writer and as a woman in the early 21st century, especially as an older woman.

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