Is Consent Needed from Others for Personal Writing ?

Many personal writing projects get shelved at the concept stage because of fears about how others portrayed might respond. What’s lost is not just a writer’s search for personal meaning, but insights for others too—in that premature decision. Premature, says writing instructor Annette Yourk, because the time to consider others is years down the road, after a second, or even a third, draft is complete. Lots of things will change in the process. You’ll cut some stories (and some people) during redrafting, and one of your subjects may no longer be alive. So, just write it, says Yourk, and consider the fallout at a later stage.

My father is gone, so if I write about this complex man (and he’s book worthy!) no permission is needed, but how might my stepmother and siblings feel?

Things to consider at the redrafting stage:

• Human memory is frail and coloured by intervening events and retelling. Acknowledge that in what you write. “’Here’s how I see it’, is a powerful phrase to keep in mind,’” says Marion Roach Smith in her valuable little book The Memoir Project. “’Here’s how it happened to me,’ or ‘Here’s how I felt.’”

• If you’ve written this to hurt others or as vindication, shelve this manuscript—permanently. Call it cathartic and move on. Or resolve those feelings and give the manuscript a major overhaul to remove the sting. Jeannette Walls had to fully rewrite her childhood memoir The Glass Castle eight times to reach objectivity.

With a revised and polished manuscript complete, you’re ready to consider others. Some just brazen ahead—without input. If this is you, make sure your facts are irrefutable. Are you hoping for a commercial publisher? Will they reject your manuscript for fear of libel? (Most publishers’ contracts say writers are solely responsible for court action, but they too can be dragged into the fray.)

Consult people to get buy-in:

Consulting people you’ve written about is usually the best recourse and there are various ways to do that, each with pros and cons. How you proceed depends on personal dynamics:

• Interview people you’ve written about, to gather their memories. Perhaps you’ll include some of their perspectives, thereby gaining a broader point of view.

• Describe what you’ve written, to invite a response and buy in. Some writers have been surprised to find someone portrayed in a negative light enjoys the notoriety. In Jeannette Walls’s memoir her deeply flawed parents gave ascent, while her sister—who played a neutral role—had to be coerced.

• Let your subject(s) read relevant portions of your polished final draft, knowing they’ll respond at the picky details level and may crimp your style and personal expression. (Note: a word by word involvement may still not gain you their blessing!)

So, take Annette Yourk’s advice. Go ahead and write and rewrite and rewrite that personal story because until then all you have is an idea. Arriving at a final draft is a journey of discovery, with a vastly different route and destination from what you may have imagined while arm chair planning. It’s not until you have a record of those experiences in hand that you can settle back into that comfy chair to consider the consequences.