Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Memoirist's Great Fear, Part 2

My inability to ask my friend for permission to write about him in my memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, (read part one of this post here) made me realize something: I was willingly participating in yet another standoff.

My memoir puts forth two: the ten-hour police action born of my husband’s stubborn determination to die on the farm of his dreams with his family intact, despite my divorce proceedings against him; and the twelve-year standoff born of my own stubbornness to face down his act by adhering to our decision to raise our sons there. My summer home friend had also been ending a long relationship at the time Ron died, and our deepening friendship was both life-affirming and misunderstood by everyone involved—perhaps most importantly, by him and me. The pain Ron’s suicide caused him eventually eroded our friendship in a way that kept him from talking to me for 12 years. A whole new standoff began.

I could no longer perpetuate the problem. We'd once had a strong base of friendship and we were still alive—and since Ron's suicide I'd believed that where there's life, there's hope. I would break our interpersonal silence.

So I got his cell number from his sister, dialed, and when he acted like it had been only yesterday since we spoke, I did what any brave-hearted woman would do: I lied.

“I’m writing something for the boys, about Ron’s suicide, and I was wondering if you might come over so I could pick your brain on a few details,” I said. Okay it wasn’t completely a lie—if the project is never published, it might be just for my sons after all.

“Sure,” he said, sounding for all the world like the compassionate man I remembered him to be. He said he’d call me later in the week to set up a time. And I’m thinking, yeah, right.

He called. He came over. We sat in Adirondack chairs overlooking the lake we both love.

“I brought you here under false pretenses,” I blurted. I am not the world’s best liar.

“Before we get into that—how are the boys?”

His humanity and our interpersonal connection ultimately affirmed, I was able to tell him that I was actually writing this memoir for publication. And why. And that he was the only obstacle standing between me and its completion. I explained my concern about his family and why I almost didn’t call. I informed him of his legal rights as I understood them.

“I don’t see why you can’t go ahead and write it," he said.

"And use your first name?”

"Sure."

I couldn’t relax yet. “And your girlfriend will be okay with it—all of it?”

He sucked in a sharp breath and held it, as if I’d sucker-punched him. All was quiet. Even the birds in the trees above us kept their peace.

I said, “She does know, right? I mean, my husband knows all about it, and that I'm talking to you today.”

“Wow," he said. "You have a good relationship.”

He determined he’d tell her. I determined I’d finish my memoir. Upon completion, I promised to send the manuscript to his sister for delivery—no point deviling his girlfriend with it prematurely, he'd said. I said it would arrive with a release form, and that in order for me to move forward, he’d have to sign it.

From our first hello in 12 years to release from liability—in the course of an hour we’d covered a lot of ground.

But when he left, he anticipated no problem in signing off on the memoir—and by doing the thing I feared most, I was set free to write it.

What is the thing you've feared doing most in your writing career? Approaching an agent at a cocktail party? Reading your work in public? Please share!


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Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. At her blog, Healing through Writing, she is currently posting about the philosophical, logistical, and biological challenges of healing from a triple ankle fracture sustained during Hurricane Irene.


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14 comments :

  1. I'm glad the meeting went well for you. It sounds like you have a lot of support which should help with any fear.

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  2. I understand why you'd want his permission from a moral standpoint, but I'm curious why it's necessary, legally. I don't know the laws about this sort of thing.

    Oh, also, as a PS to Blood Red Pencil--the pop-up comment window didn't work on this post. I had to right-click and open in a new window to get to the comment form.

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  3. So glad to read that this all resolved in a positive way. I guess we'll all have to read your memoir to find out why you needed his permission to write about him and the complication with his girlfriend. This is more intriguing than fiction. LOL

    Thanks for the heads up about the comment window, Leslea. Hopefully our tech savvy member can fix that. Not me. LOL

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  4. Halli: Interesting how "support" can be a matter of perspective! I do have some support, from my best friend, Ron's ex-wife, a writing friend who is a memoir enthusiast, and a small group of women that have been listening to my chapters. These people are awaiting my story, and I am thankful for all of them—but only my best friend was at all involved, and at the time she lived hours away. Those involved, for the most part, don't want to re-live the story. But it is true that everyone involved has now moved out of the way.

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  5. Leslea: From what I've been told, in order to write about the involvement of others in certain private or legal situations you must have their permission, unless "it was generally known to be true." That is a vague distinction that can be hard to prove. To avoid slander, defamation, and invasion of privacy lawsuits, it's really best if each memoirist seeks the advice of a literary attorney. Everyone agrees you are free to tell your own story—but unless your tale is one of man against nature, chances are other people will be involved. You don't have the right to expose the details of their lives without permission.

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  6. Maryann: I have thought long and hard about fictionalizing my story because I know that a well-told fiction can have incredible power. But I could never let go of the most compelling aspect of my story: it really happened. So I'm soldiering on.

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  7. Kathryn,

    Bravo to a brave soldier. This sounds like the making of a really compelling memoir.

    You asked about our most fearful moments: I am facing one now, also a permission perplex. I just finished writing a literary thriller inspired in part by Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford Commencement speech, which is quoted in the novel. But he died before I could reach him to secure permission. Do I go ahead and risk a lawsuit, or duck the issue with a weakened indirect quote. I have no doubt that Steve would have approved the project, but his estate and the corporate handlers at Apple are another affair. I still don't know what I am going to do.

    --Larry Constantine
    (Lior Samson, novelist)

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  8. The greatest fear I've had is allowing someone — anyone — I know and love to read my work. Why? I'm not sure, but perhaps it's more of an extension of self than I care to admit.

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  9. That took some guts.

    The biggest fear I have is actually being published...and then failing at it. Not that it's stopping me, but it is a fear.

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  10. Larry: That is indeed a messy one. When it comes to fiction, though, as with any work of art, there does come a point when it is sometimes best to jettison your initial inspiration in favor of fully fictionalizing. If Steve Jobs is not a character in the novel, this might be possible. But if you must keep it, keep your eyes open for literary lawyers speaking at conferences, etc. They may be able to tell you how best to proceed.

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  11. Linda, I love what you said here: "perhaps it's more of an extension of self than I care to admit." There's a real beauty to that. Authors willing to put themselves out there and truly enter the work do put themselves at much greater risk--of success.

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  12. Martin, I can totally relate. Rejection letters from agents are nothing compared to public humiliation by established critics, gobs of book returns, or flatline sales. Back in the day you could work toward a breakout novel, but these days it's start big or bust. (Oops--guess I didn't make you feel better, did I. Guess I'm just saying, I can relate to that fear!)

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  13. It sounds like things went well. Good luck in the remainder of the writing.

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  14. Thanks, girlseeksplace! Love that handle, by the way, which in itself suggests an entire memoir.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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