I learned an important lesson this week. In my new book, I wrote about a family member’s problems in his youth, which included some run-ins with the law. Another family member had mentioned a while back that he was unhappy, but I hadn’t heard anything from him. Besides, I figured, it’s the truth and it’s my story to tell.
I was wrong.
All my journalism training and years working for newspapers planted the idea in my head that the most important thing is to tell the truth. If someone gets hurt, it’s a shame, but we have to give the readers all the facts without bias. It was always newspaper policy never to show the story to the subject before publication because they might want to change it. That is still true when you’re writing news stories about public figures, but what about when you’re writing memoir about your own family? Or doing any kind of writing about private people?
As my publication date neared, I got a little nervous about what I had written. I took some stuff out and softened some things. But that wasn’t enough, as I learned when my relative exploded all over my head yesterday. When the phone rang, I was on the road. I had just left I-5 because I was getting sleepy and thought I’d take a nap in the mini-city of Proberta. Instead I pulled onto a gravel lot off a country road and answered the phone.
As soon as I said hello, my relative started screaming at me and asking why I wanted to “throw him under the bus.” If people read the things I had written about him, his reputation would be ruined, he said. It all happened a long time ago, and he thought he had put it behind him, but here I was using it in my book for all the world to read. He was pretty out of control, so upset, feeling betrayed. Also possibly litigious. Might he have grounds for a libel suit? Maybe. Although his claims might be hard to prove, I don’t want to find out.
He brought out a whole litany of things he feels I have done wrong over the last 30 years, including various blog posts that offended him. I prayed for God to sit close to me and keep me from making things worse by screaming back. I calmly assured him that I meant no harm and that I didn’t think it mattered after all these years, but I would take out the most damning parts. Luckily, Kindle e-books can be revised and the print version has been formatted but has not gone to press, publication interrupted by my trip to California.
In my motel room in Yreka, I opened up the book file and searched for every mention of my family member’s name. When I got to the part where I focused on his troubles, enlightened by everything he had said, I saw that my “good story” was something I should not have considered publishing without his permission. I cut a couple pages, changed a few other things, and wrote a note for the copyright page explaining that I had omitted some things on request. I added that maybe some people wish I had cut out more things, but this is my story and I meant no harm.
Meaning no harm and doing no harm may be two different things, I’m learning far too late in life.
I then texted my relative to tell him the changes had been made and I was sorry. I am. And not because I’ll spend the next week reformatting the book to make up for the missing pages.
This all makes me want to stick to fiction and poetry. Over the years, I have certainly had people go off on me about things I published in local newspapers. I have had people stand next to my desk screaming and threatening me. I was usually able to use the defense of truth and the public’s need to know. Usually my bosses backed me, although there were times when I offended an advertiser and was forced to “make nice.”
But this is not a newspaper; it’s a memoir, and I’m on my own.
So what lessons have we learned? First, I still think it’s fine to write anything we feel like writing. If we worry about what people might think while we’re writing, we’ll get blocked and never write anything. But when it comes to publishing, even in a blog or a Facebook update, we need to consider who might be harmed by our words, no matter how well-intentioned. When in doubt, we need to talk to the people we write about and even let them read our words before we publish them. It’s the right thing to do. We may decide we still have to publish what we’ve written despite their objections, but at least there won’t be any surprises. Perhaps some things should stay in our notebooks and computers and not be shared, even if it’s a damned good story.
What do you think?