Must We Tell All?

gossip photoMy writing workshop students and I were having a lively discussion recently about the pros and cons of using real life in our work. Half of the class is trying to figure out if they want to tell their stories via memoir or novel. One woman had turned in pages for critique about her relationship with her adult daughter. It was good writing—the beginnings of something I could see going either into memoir or fiction.

One of the considerations I wanted to broach for my students was the ethics involved in using real life. Writers will inevitably involve other people in our work. But what’s right and fair when we tell “our” stories? I wanted to caution this new writer that maybe she was stepping too far over the line. (The line that like the judge said about porn no one can say where it is, but we know it when we see it.) I can’t draw the line for her. There’s not a clear-cut rule. Legally, she was probably safe. (A couple of great overviews about libel, defamation and invasion of privacy here and here.) But I felt like the family member she was writing about, with whom she already has a difficult relationship, may not enjoy seeing all that information go public. I wanted her to know that while telling the truth is an admirable goal for a writer, there might be consequences from it that she may not like.

A question writers need to ask ourselves: Is good writing worth causing a rift with loved ones?

In my first novel, Orange Mint and Honey, my main character suffers from trichotillomania (she pulls her hair). A friend of mine had shared with me that she used to pull her hair as a child. When I wanted a way to show (vs. tell) that my adult-child-of-an-alcoholic character had been scarred by her childhood, I asked my friend if I could use trich. The character wasn’t based on her and didn’t resemble her in any other way. She agreed. But of course agreeing to something in theory can be different than seeing it in print. When she read the draft she was bothered, and confessed that trichotillomania was still something she struggled with. We talked and agreed that I could keep it in the manuscript. Later, when the book was published she said when she read it she felt freed to face this issue and sought therapy. But since then, she has drifted away and I’ve always wondered if me writing about that issue was part of what changed our friendship.

I try to draw the line in my writing using the Golden Rule. If someone wrote about me in the same way, how would I feel? But even with the purest intentions there’s no guarantee that you won’t hurt someone’s feelings with your writing. That’s a risk for even the most careful writer. But at least if I do so unwittingly I can look myself in the mirror. I couldn’t if I knowingly wrote something I knew would injure someone I care about. This post on the subject by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg offers good advice on the moral and ethical concerns about writing about loved ones.

One other thing to think about: what is “the truth”? Is our version of what happened ever really the whole story? Last weekend, I saw a good play on the subject called “Other Desert Cities.” In it, the main character has written a memoir about a big family secret–of course, as the play progresses more and more secrets are revealed–and the main character finds out that what she thought was the truth about her family is only part of the story.

I would never tell someone not to write their story as truthfully as they could. However, I think writers should be aware of the consequences and considerations when they do so.

Back when I started taking classes and participating in writing groups it seemed the emphasis was on encouraging writers to be unafraid to share their stories. I wonder if in these days of “reality” tv shows and social media, we’re not a little more prone to tell more about those around us (and maybe ourselves too) than we should.

I’d love to hear from other writing instructors. Anyone else ever feel like telling students to dial it down a notch?

Writers, what do you think? What is a writer’s responsibility to the truth, to our writing and to those around us? How do you draw the line in your own work?


About Carleen Brice

Carleen Brice writes nonfiction and fiction. Her most recent books are the novels Orange Mint and Honey, which was made into a Lifetime television movie called “Sins of the Mother,” and Children of the Waters. She’s currently at work on a novel called Every Good Wish.


  1. says

    Carleen, when I first started reading your post, I thought to myself: But of course we should always tell the truth! Raw honesty. Isn’t that what writing is all about? It’s what I learned in creative writing classes and what I plan to teach this summer in my publishing course at Hofstra University. However, I do agree that raw honesty can come at a price, particularly in nonfiction, and aspiring writers should be aware of the consequences, be they legal or otherwise. But even so, those are considerations for the editing process, not the draft, which should, in my opinion, be just pure passion and chutzpah.

    • says

      Good point on the distinction between writing and editing. Sometimes, we might be overly cautious until we write what we need to write and see that it’s “not so bad.” Or even decide not to use it because it no longer serves the story.

  2. says

    Thanks for this post, Carleen. With the tell-all mentality that social media has cultivated, I fear respect of privacy is becoming obsolete. As a super private person, I always gauge what to write and what not to write based on the Golden Rule. I wish more people were sensitive to privacy when it comes to pictures, too, but alas, I’ve begun to accept I’m in the minority with my opinion. At any rate, I appreciate your thoughts on this often ignored topic, and I found the link to Caryn’s article helpful and informative as well.

  3. says

    Carleen, your ‘Golden Rule’ metric for appropriateness resonated loudly with me. You can seldom go wrong in applying The Golden Rule whether in business or personal business.

  4. says

    A thought-provoking post, to be sure! I remember in college a friend had won a writing contest but no one told me because she apparently had written about me. I finally heard about it and it was more a caricature of me. I wasn’t offended, I more hurt that it was a big loud noisy secret. It was unflattering, since she amplified my flaws but it taught me a valuable lesson -to use that Golden Rule.

    Now, I take a different approach. If I am writing a conflict, I mine events in my past that had a similar effect and I am mining the emotions. If I immerse myself in the memory, my dialogue benefits. It’s also kind of therapeutic or maybe cathartic ;-)

  5. says

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, “Is our version of what happened ever really the whole story?”

    That’s just a good principle to invoke in every day life as well as our writing. My dad has a very violent memory of something that happened when he was a child. He has said that it was a traumatizing moment in his life, but when questioned further about the details surrounding this scenario, he realized that his mind (as a child) had amped up the situation and that what he remembers happening wasn’t actually accurate. And to think he’s held this thing over himself for so many years.

    I really want to write non-fiction, about my life, and I feel like I am being given a more and more balanced perspective of the truth, the more I walk through healing in my heart, but still, I would never want to dishonor the people who helped me become who I am, even though there were many failures along the way. It’s a significant struggle for me. How do I honor people who have wounded me and still tell my story?

    I may never figure it out.

  6. says

    This is a tough one. Sometimes, no matter how much you reformat the character, the original will still feel the similarity acutely, even though nobody else can see it. I think there’s an extra mile to be travelled – not just disguising the physicalities and circumstances but perhaps building a character that is the opposite to your original. But even that is no guarantee. Thanks for the food for thought!

  7. Denise Willson says

    At the core we are people first, writers second. We’d all do well to remember this.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  8. Jen Cohen says

    This was a focal point of multiple discussions with both Andre Dubus III and Nicholson Baker at the SNHU Writer’s day earlier this month.

    Andre made a very interesting distinction regarding fact and truth. They are not the same thing. Truth is personal. The example he used was a young girl who felt unloved by her father because he was never at her school events. The father was absent because he was working multiple jobs to feed, clothe and educate her and her sister. It wasn’t that she wasn’t loved, because he was working furiously to give her the best life he could. But that she felt unloved was her truth.

    He also talked about this with respect to his memoir where he treads in some very disturbing family history. He said that he wrote only about what he knew and experienced first hand versus what he had heard or was speculated about. That way he could stay honest and yet not violate other family members privacy.

    I found both these distinctions very instructive.

  9. says

    I find myself feeling uncomfortable with the idea of taking a family situation word for word and applying it solely to a story… for many of the above. Instead, I find these personal experiences are better mixed into a fictional scenario to give it the flavor of truth, instead of potentially punching loved ones in the face. That’s the beauty of it – telling a certain story in such a way that protects another person. I hope that makes sense.

  10. says

    It is a fine line when determining how much real life to include, however, taking everybody’s feelings into consideration will cause the writer to invariably end up writing “See Dick run” over and over again.

    The writer pens the truth as he sees it. Too little daring makes for a yawner of a novel, though. Heavy-duty realities from life should be fictionalized, in my opinion, with feelings, thoughts, reactions, and the like all there, but the incident itself cloaked in a new outfit.

    Memoirs, by definition, are the personal memories and experiences of an individual. ONE individual. If that is the truth to the writer, then let them tell it as they see fit. That’s not to say be hateful…that’s a personal decision that has its own repercussions, but if having a drunk father caused them to say, run away and get in trouble with the law time and again, then to paint a Ward Cleaver as a role model just doesn’t make sense. I think it’s more how you do it than what you tell.

    And if your friend took offense to your use of trichotillomania…she’s got more problems than pulling her hair.

  11. says

    I think there are ways to be truthful and careful at the same time. Spin the truth a bit, give it a different name or no name at all, disguise the characteristics of a person enough for reasonable doubt. But I definitely wouldn’t tell all while writing fiction–not even fiction disguised as a memoir. (Couldn’t resist.)

  12. says

    People have asked why I won’t write a memoir because of events that have happened in and around my life, but I will not. First, I don’t want to give power to certain people by acknowledging them in a book; and second, I don’t want to hurt other people by displaying their foibles they may have paid for dearly just to sell books.

    I rarely even put real people in my fiction, but if I do, they are unrecognizable, deeply embedded in a character- or, often, I will take that person for whom created some kind of upheaval and make them the opposite of what they were in real life.

    I like writing about people with “afflictions” but I won’t use someone from my life. I have someone in mind that I’d love to write about “how they are” but I won’t do it — it would be really cool, but I won’t. Because this person would see themselves and it would hurt them.

    I’m not above using a lot of stuff in my books, but I do have lines I won’t cross.

  13. Carmel says

    I’ve learned over the years (in life, not necessarily writing) that I have a right to tell my story, but another person’s story is their own to tell.

    • Ray Pace says

      So, on that basis of logic we should have accepted Nixon’s version of Watergate and ignored the Washington Post.

      • Carmel says

        I’m not an investigative reporter. I’m trying to write stories that entertain and hopefully help along the way. I won’t take advantage of a family member or friend for my own benefit.

      • says

        I think this blog understands the difference between professional writers trying their best to tell the truth as they know it and politicians or other public figures trying to burnish their legacy.

  14. Ray Pace says

    Your first mistake was asking your friend if you could use trich — as if she has some exclusive rights over her condition. She doesn’t, but having been alerted by you, now feels she has an editor position in anything you create with trich in it.
    Your circle of acquaintances probably has its share of people who have alcohol or drug problems – just as mine and many others do. I don’t feel obligated to ask every drunk I know if I can proceed with over-drinking in my novel. Imagine that difficulty!

  15. says

    I think another important question to ask ourselves is “why”? What is our motive for telling or exposing certain facts or information about another person in our stories? Often times, if our motive is sincere, toward the goal of healing and reconciliation, or encouragement to inspire others, then we can tell our story with a measure of integrity and balance.

    Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. It is of utmost importance that we be careful how we use our words. Words have the power of life and death. They can be nurturing and life-giving or destructive. Being a writer comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility and we are held accountable. If your conscience condemns you, don’t do write it.

    But if you feel you must:
    1. At least rethink your approach
    2. As someone already said, tell your story using “I” state-
    ments, speaking only from your perspective and what was
    true for “you”.
    3. As difficult as it might be, you need to have a conversation
    with the affected parties. This one act, can make the
    difference in the life or death of your relationship.

    I hope this is helpful.

  16. says

    Making this problem even more challenging is the fact that many writers – particularly in their early efforts – tend to treat writing as a form of therapy: a chance to let out a bunch of pent-up feelings and experiences. They can become so caught up in capturing their own truths and revelations that they lose sight of whether or not they are actually telling a compelling story that others would want to read.

    I hasten to add, writing as therapy is not inherently bad; indeed, some people find it extremely helpful. But it’s not necessarily the key to writing commercially viable fiction. And – even worse – any rejections you receive can feel like they’re rejecting not just your story, but your life itself.

    I tend to encourage people who are writing thinly veiled memoir under the guise of fiction to “go all in,” and commit to actually writing their own memoir. Then, if the notion of other people reading their real-life stories makes them too uncomfortable, maybe it’s time to admit they’re not writing a story the whole world needs to see after all.

    But if it helps the writer to get those feelings down on paper, by all means, keep a journal or write a memoir. Then stick it in a drawer, and try shifting focus to writing for an external audience, rather than an internal audience of one.

    • says

      Another reason to write it all out and then look back and see what’s worth keeping and what just needed to get out so you could get past it. Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  17. says

    Talk about a volatile subject… if we worried about what everyone thought, we’d never get anything written… but… the big BUT butt. An editor friend read a draft of something from my novel where the character talks about her mom; she resembled not my mom at all. My mom says go be free, follow your dreams. This one was the opposite & he said the one person who will read your book is your mom & she will be hurt! I felt the book didn’t need the scene & took it out. My mom later said she knows writers make stuff up & wouldnt be hurt at all. Another story I have in this regard is all of the stuff that peeps think IS about me. My novel is becoming quite steamy and trust me, I haven’t done any of the things my characters have done with regards to the sex scenes. But no one believes that… they look at me like “mmm hmm of course you are saying the sex isn’t direct from your life.” I say, “well there is also a murder, do you think I murdered someone too?” anyway… the one sure way to failure is to try to please everyone. Be careful, but … big but butt.

    • says

      It’s funny what people imagine to be true versus what is true in my writing. We can’t control it, but I do try to think about the big but. :)

  18. says

    A writer may have ‘inside information’ about a family situation or how it feels (to her) exactly to have a particular condition or illness, information that no one else has, and feel a responsibility to put it out there, somewhere, for other people who are afflicted similarly – but who cannot write.

    Writing is a rare gift. Most people do not write, not at length and in detail. But readers may be able to find someone else who has written about their common condition – and find all kinds of good things in being able to see it verbalized.

    Disguise it in fiction – but let it out, especially if it is unique. Someone may be helped – and someone else may become educated.

    My added requirement is that it also meet the rest of the standards for ‘good story, well written.’ Though some writers have put out their raw passions and have found readers anyway, I think it limits their audience. That may not matter to the writer, or the audience could be huge anyway (Left Behind series) and care more that it was being written to than about the quality of the writing.

    [About LB series: I couldn’t read it – but millions of people did.]

  19. says

    Thanks for a thoughtful post. Most of my fiction is sparked by real people, events, or situations, but in my hands it takes a life of its own as I write, trying to understand how some things could happen, or why. I love memoirs, and have published some short memoir, but I choose the topics carefully so as not to hurt anyone who is still alive. But fiction gives me freedom to explore ideas more deeply without that worry …

    In the past few years as a writing instructor, I have encouraged several of my students to pursue memoir because I saw they could write with humor and compassion. But the vast majority I need to guide towards having the elements of a story.

  20. says

    Memoir or novel? I thought I had found an answer to this question and wrote my first manuscript loosely based on my life but presented it as fiction. Now that I’m starting to work on the sequeal I’m facing the question once again. Along with the desire to tell this story, comes the desire to own it. Yet I would never want to hurt feelings or trash memories. I’m still look for a solution.
    Thank you for writing this article, Carleen.

    • says

      I’m glad you’re still writing and wanting to own your story. I’ve seen lots of fiction “based on real life” that the author can “own” as part of the publicity about the story. If you decide to fictionalize, you can still be a voice for the subject matter and still speak to the realities of what it was/is for you. Good luck!

  21. says

    that’s a lot of sticky considerations worth pointing out, and something i wrestled with quite a bit, seeing as i like doing family populated characters in my fiction ;-)

    what i basically came down to was, what is the main character trait or traits that are appealing to me to use in a fiction work, then place them in fictional characters totally unrelated to their originating source –

    it’s quite a challenge at times, but i figured that if the traits were true people traits, they’d be universal enough to give to characters in my books

    and as usual, i’m finding it to be a process ;-)

  22. Marilyn Slagel says

    Stepped on my toes here, Carleen! You are correct in that tell-alls bring about consequences. Am I sorry I wrote my book? No. Too many people wanted the story. Do I feel bad that one person was hurt? Yes, I do.

    My current WIP is about the perils of online dating. I’m having a terrible time trying to decide how to disguise real people. Anyone have any ideas?

    • says

      Didn’t mean to step on any toes! Ideas for disguising characters–obviously, don’t use their names and mix and match traits and descriptions. Maybe create compilation characters and include an author’s note that they are compilations. Definitely read all the info you can about libel and whether or not you’re opening yourself to legal problems. Good luck!

      On a less serious note, you’ve heard the old joke? Give them all tiny penises and they won’t claim the characters are based on them. :-)

  23. says

    Carlene, you ask: “A question writers need to ask ourselves: Is good writing worth causing a rift with loved ones?” I ask the question: “Do sweeping uncomfortable feelings under the carpet and avoiding awkward circumstances with loved ones foster genuine relationships?

    I recently had an opportunity to test this out when I sent a dear friend a copy of one of the chapters of an impending memoir, where she is not always presented in a good light. Even though I used a pseudonym, her character would be easily recognised by those who know her. I told her I would not include the chapter in the memoir if she did not want it to be published. After working through some difficult issues together, she acknowledged the validity of what I was communicating and said it would be OK to go ahead and include the chapter. As a result of this event, we have developed a closer relationship.

    For me, the opportunity to foster greater intimacy through honesty outweighs any seemingly negative outcomes.

    • says

      I think you handled this very well, and you definitely add a good point to this discussion that talking about the issues with the people we’re writing about might actually add to our relationships. Thank you!

  24. says

    Yes, part of the trouble with being a writer is that you’re influenced and inspired by the people and events in your life, so you must use them in your fiction (and have the right to do so)– yet you don’t want the people you care about to feel violated or “used.” When my mother read my first novel, I was worried that she would see herself reflected unfavorably in one of the characters, since I was struggling with my mother during part of the time I was writing it. I also thought she would have fond memories of a familiar place I described as part of the setting. Instead, she made no connection whatsoever between herself and this negatively-portrayed character– and also, she said she liked everything she read except for the descriptions of that setting, which she found boring and “didn’t get”!

    What I took away from that is that, in the end, fiction is a kind of Rorschach test. Unless you come out and explicitly explain your inspiration, people will usually read into it what makes sense to them and miss what doesn’t. People’s bias tends toward seeing themselves in a positive light, so they may well assume that a character’s negative traits have nothing to do with them. This isn’t 100% by any means, but it’s been my experience, and not just in this one case, either.

  25. says

    I’m finding that writing about other people is tricky business. I’m currently writing a book of poems and first person narratives on the topic of mother tongue and the politics of language. The first person I interviewed for this project was an Ethiopian woman. She shared with me that her 2 children (12 & 8) are embarrassed to speak their mother tongue (Amharic) in the presence of their American friends. The woman believing that her mother tongue is essential to staying connected to her religion, family back home and Ethiopian politics, she pushes her children to keep their mother tongue alive. She shared with me that when they are at home she regularly speaks Amharic and require the children to respond back to her in Amharic–if they don’t she ignores their wishes. This bit of information intrigued me and subsequently it found its way into the narrative poem I wrote based on her interview. I decided to share the poem with her. After she read it she telephoned me to say she liked the poem but could I take out the part about her ignoring her children. Also, I created a metaphor in the poem which compares her children’s attitude towards their mother tongue to an “old despised woman with yellowing teeth”. She took this line at its literal meaning so I had to explain to her how writers use figurative language to convey certain messages. She excepted this explanation but yet in still she wanted me to edit out that she “ignores” her children. Let me say for the record I believe this woman is a good mother to her children and I told her as much. I told her that it is admirable that she works so hard to keep her language alive in her children. I made no promises to her to edit this fact out of the poem. After hanging up the phone I reread the poem as I reflected on our conversation and it got me to thinking as I proceed with the writing of other people’s experiences what do I tell and what do I leave out. It was really a dilemma for me. Eventually I decided not to edit it out of the poem. Days later she emailed me and said, “you know, I really like your poem” Boy was I relieved. Since then the poem has been published and she proudly order a copy of the journal in which it appears. I have decided it to be best not to share my poems/first person narratives with the subject (I hate calling them this) until after the book is published. I believe sharing like I did could hinder my creative process. As a sensitive writer who is not looking to slander anyone but rather tell the stories or ordinary people–I have to trust that I will use the information they give me in a balanced, truthful way. Life isn’t always neat and positive–it has ripples. I have to trust my judgement otherwise why even complete the book.

    • says

      Good for you for trusting your judgment and learning from your experience. Thanks for sharing this–it really adds to the discussion for others who might have a similar dilemma.

  26. Lori A. Owen says

    Thanks for the article. I am wanting to fictionalize a story in my past. I have tried to write it as a memoir and it was to technical. It would have been fine if I wanted medical personal only to read it but I don’t. I want the general public to read it. It is worth a try for me. Worst case scenerio is that I write the story and it ends up in a drawer.

  27. says


    I am currently working on a memoir, which has gone through a couple of renditions. The second version was a collection of essays and they seemed too disparate, so I am now weaving most of them together with time sequence. I do not name anyone specifically (although mother and father are hard to avoid) and I refer to anyone referenced as friend or daughter. I am not sure how that approach will be received. I am also writing under a pseudonym to try to create yet another level of separation, but have it written the way I indicate above because some people will know who has written it. It’s a very strange walk, because I want to share some very unique real experiences and ideas, so I also feel people need to know who I am and how they came to be. Any interest in being a beta reader? I would be happy to send the first few pages…I am a month/maybe two? from having the new compilation completed. At any rate, thanks for your thoughts on the subject and to everyone who has posted!

  28. Jak Sheridan says

    I’m working on a memoir that exposes some very unsettling aspects of someone’s life. My decision? I won’t seek publication until after that person’s spouse is deceased. She’ll be 82 next month and plans to live to be 100. If that’s the case, so be it. It’s a story that needs to be told (it’s ‘my story,’ too), but I could never publish it while she’s still living. That’s my “solution.”