My 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?