Naming Names

A discussion thread popped up yesterday in a Linked-In group I joined on Women’s Memoir. A poster asked how to incorporate unpleasant information about people without causing major upset or backlash….

About the same time, a note came in from one of my fearless, peerless writers asking that I use her chosen pseudonym when I post her writing.

Coincidence, these two messages, but also a reminder that words can be dangerous. What we write can hurt others, and that can cause problems in our relationships.

This question has come up in just about every workshop I’ve taught. But it feels like I’m getting less sure about the answer, not more. I’ve had a few dust-ups over work I’ve published that characterized other people in less-than-flattering lights. It didn’t matter to me–until it did.

The more you care to maintain a relationship with the person you’re writing about, the more necessary it is to deal directly with the problem your writing will create when it goes public.

The strategies available to you are (Thank you, Kendra Bonnett, for articulating this on the Linked-In thread):

  1. Change names, theirs or yours.
  2. Talk with those involved.
  3. Turn your memoir into fiction.

“Where there’s fear, there’s power,” Starkhawk wrote. If thinking about going public with something you’ve written gives you a frisson of fear, you’ve got a story worth working on.

Write first for yourself, truthfully, without changing names, without pulling punches. Write the observable facts. Write angry one-sided expose if that’s what you’re feeling. Write from others’ point of view, exploring what they might have felt. Write with all the wisdom and compassion you can find.

By the time you’ve done all that, you’ll have defused your anger, found new perspective, and incorporated the story into your life’s narrative. Maybe you’ll have a clearer idea whether, and how, to approach the issue of naming names when you’re ready to share your writing.

When I publish the work of other writers on this blog, they get to choose their strategy. For me, no pseudonyms, but maybe an occasional name change to protect another’s privacy. We’re not here to make trouble–we’re here to wrest meaning, or at least entertainment, from the true stories we live.

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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3 Responses to Naming Names

  1. Pingback: Naming Names comes up again | True Stories Well Told

  2. Pingback: Billy Sunday’s Ghost Resort | True Stories Well Told

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