As you write your memoir, you’re likely to periodically make choices about how much to reveal about yourself. That part’s easy: do whatever’s comfortable for you, because you’re the owner of your story. The harder question is how much to reveal about the other people in your life. You do not own their story in the same way that you own yours. Your friends and relatives may never forgive you for sharing what you know about them.
“Don’t worry about that problem in advance,” advises William Zinsser in his essay, “How to Write a Memoir,” which we’ve been discussing here. “Your first job is to get your story down as you remember it…Say what you want to say, freely and honestly, and finish the job. Then take up the privacy issue. If you wrote your family history only for your family, there’s no legal or ethical need to show it to anyone else. But if you have in mind a broader audience—a mailing to friends or a possible book—you may want to show your relatives the pages in which they are mentioned. That’s a basic courtesy; nobody wants to be surprised in print. It also gives them their moment to ask you to take certain passages out—which you may or may not agree to do.”
Remember that, ultimately, this is your story. Zinsser continues, “You’re the one who has done all the work. If your sister has a problem with your memoir, she can write her own memoir, and it will be just as valid as yours; nobody has a monopoly on the shared past. Some of your relatives will wish you hadn’t said some of the things you said, especially if you reveal various family traits that are less than lovable. But I believe that at some level most families want to have a record left of their effort to be a family, however flawed that effort was, and they will give you their blessing and will thank you for taking on the job—if you do it honestly and not for the wrong reasons.”
The major “wrong reasons” Zinsser mentions are 1) whining in self-pity in order to feed your own need for attention; 2) including sordid details in an attempt to make your book more marketable because of the titillation factor; and 3) using your memoir to settle a score. Zinsser cautions memoir writers not to simply air old grievances. However, he concludes, “if you make an honest transaction with your own humanity and with the humanity of the people who crossed your life, no matter how much pain they caused you or you caused them, readers will connect with your journey.”