Creative nonfiction: should we write about the people we know?

I just came upon a post about creative nonfiction by Megan Culhane Galbraith, who seems shocked by her family’s reluctance to allow her to write about them. It raises some old, but seemingly unanswered, questions about writing and boundaries.

In this land of free speech, provided we represent people as honestly and fairly as we can, do we not have an automatic right to write about the people we know?

I’d say no.

Not if we want to be decent people; to place human integrity over and above the authenticity (or popularity) of our work. We may have legal rights to write and be technically-not-damned, but that doesn’t relieve us of a duty of care to the people around us; we might be writers, but not all stories are ours to tell.

I’m talking specifically about creative nonfiction here. Obviously there are forms of writing to which different rules apply; medical writers have strict codes of practice concerning permissions and publication, journalists don’t need permission from all their subjects — it matters that they can write freely, and in terms of fiction, we’ve all written pieces that have been informed or inspired by the people around us. There’s no blocking out the whole world in order to write a completely dissociated piece, but while experience and understanding add authenticity to our writing, there’s a big difference between drawing on memories to write good fiction, and exposing, hurting or otherwise compromising the people around us in the name of a subjective “truth” or nebulous “craft”.

So to answer the original post, of course people might find it threatening if we write creative nonfiction about them. It’s an entirely human and understandable reaction. 

I’ve been on both sides of the CNF fence: writer and subject. Neither was comfortable.

I once read an article in which I was an unnamed character in someone’s autobiographical piece, and I hated it. I was portrayed in a pleasant way but they did not inform me in advance or ask about my feelings, so when I first saw it in published form, that was the take-home message: to this author, the writing and publication were more important than my feelings. They were within their legal rights, but the lack of courtesy and consideration shaped our relationship — I no longer trusted their judgement about boundaries.

My discomfort was not limited to confidentiality — yes, there’s the obvious issue of privacy which in this case was mostly protected, but it’s also to do with memory, interpretation, invasion, and trust.

key-677851_640Writing about someone else’s real-life, emotional experience is an intimate act. 

When we remember a life event, we start off by remembering it in a particular way. That way is personal to us, and we can (to an extent) choose to either cherish the memory, or shelve it to allow us to move on. Someone else writing it down provides another viewpoint and even if their representation isn’t defamatory or factually wrong, still it can challenge our treasured memories, and call old loves, joys and sorrows to question. It’s OK for two people to have different memories of the same event, but the effect of this needs to be considered when writing about someone else in the public domain. It can be invasive to have someone represent you in a historical time and place and, either directly or by inference, speak for you. To manage this properly requires a deep and empathetic understanding. As a subject, you’d need to trust someone implicitly for this to feel OK, but if the author publishes their piece without informed consent, where is that trust? What does that say about understanding?

More subtly, when someone writes CNF, the act of putting incident to paper (or screen) also freeze-frames what might otherwise be a changing landscape of memory. Galbraith was writing about adoption — a process that can be deeply traumatic for those concerned. In any highly emotive area, a grieving or healing process might involve us reliving something, re-interpreting it, coming to terms, and then letting go. Do we not all have painful memories that we re-examine, reshape, and mould into something that we are able to build and take into the future? Is that not a normal part of healing? How would we feel to see our experience frozen in time, in a public forum?

That’s a question that should be asked of the subject, with respect.

I’ve only written an emotive CNF piece once. The writing was exciting — very emotional and real — but I was aware that it touched on intimate moments in someone else’s life. It was only when I considered showing it to the subject that I really realised how it might feel for them to read it — and this in itself made it obvious that I must ask for permission.

I asked. They read it, choked, and gave it their blessing for publication as a reflection of their generosity and our friendship, but the look on their face said the rest. I’d pulled out their insides with my stupid writing and, no matter that they were prepared to let me publish, there might be a moment in the future when they changed their mind, and then it might be too late — a time after the public had read and commented, a part of the process over which the author has limited or no control.  I withdrew it and it was never published.

The piece is now in my in-tray, fictionalised. As fiction, it speaks with a voice every bit as true as the original, but with one fundamental difference: when it’s published, if they want to, everyone can walk away from it except me. As the author, I own it and I am accountable for it.

That said, I love to write creative nonfiction. It combines the craft of fiction with the immediacy of real life; it calls for guts and tears and, if writing with someone else, real intimacy and trust. The integrity required to write it may also be the integrity that stops us from publishing it, but the friendships forged will be no less real for the journey. Creative nonfiction is, without a shadow of doubt, one of my favourite forms of writing. I’m just not sure I’ll ever publish any.

Whether or not you agree with my views on CNF, one thing is for sure: when you write a non-fiction piece about the people close to you, it can shape the relationship irrevocably, and if you write it, you have to be accountable for it. It’s best to acknowledge that before we start.


Image attribution: face, key

Thank you for reading 😊