Friday, January 22, 2016

What Memoirists Always Ask: How Much of My Story Can I Tell without Hurting Others?

Anyone who has written creative nonfiction (memoir, particularly) has probably run into the question of story ownership.  How much of your experience do you really have the right to write about?  When your story crosses into other people's lives, is it still yours to tell?

I've long admired Patricia Hampl's approach in I Could Tell You Stories.  She discusses the lines she's crossed and what came of it.  Mostly, she lost people in her life.   I remember how angry one of my family members became when I wrote about my very religious grandmother's mugging and loss of faith in God because of it, her eventual death.  "That's not the way it happened," this dear relative said.  But it was the way it happened, from my experience.  And I wrote about it as honestly as I could, to the best of my memory.

Who is right, in terms of memory?  Brain science tells us that memory changes as soon as we remember something.  Just the act of remembering will shift the details. 

And are my stories always my own?  Do I write them without considering the others who were involved?  Sometimes, I do.  Sometimes, not.