No Publishing Without Penalties

May 25, 2021 § 3 Comments

We’re all concerned about hurting others or getting hurt.

We all want to share our story as truthfully as possible.

What happens when these are diametrically opposed? When your ex threatens to take the kids, Aunt Mildred screams at you on the phone, and your mom says she’s “not mad…just disappointed”?

Your story matters, and you get to write it the way you remember. It’s called a memoir, not a “comprehensive review of all facts.” But you can take steps throughout your writing and publishing process to minimize fallout and family strife.

Write the book. You may discover a new story thread as you write, leaving out the worrisome scene or the touchy relative. You may discover that actually, you have five scenes showing why you became a mountain climber, Aunt Mildred saying you’d never amount to anything isn’t the strongest one, and you’re cutting it.

Seek out other perspectives. If you’re not speaking to your antagonists, ask their family members. If you are, interview like a documentarian. Don’t ask, “Why did you push six-year-old me down the stairs, Dad?” Instead, “Tell me about how we interacted when I was a kid. What were our days like?” You might cry in your car after every interaction, but you’ll get better material by starting from a neutral position.

Do as much showing as possible. Describe behavior and show its effects on those around the person. It can be very meaningful to write an antagonist’s perception of herself, giving her view serious consideration (Is Grandma an alcoholic or is she just “jolly”? Are you being judgmental?). Balance makes a more interesting book, with more for the reader to think about. Give the clues to the problem—make the reader a detective who puts it all together.

Rest the book. Every author, fiction or non, needs a resting period for their book. If you’re a category romance novelist churning out ebooks for dollars (you go!), that might be an afternoon. But for memoirists, your final-draft manuscript should sit without your attention for a minimum of six weeks, and ideally six months. Coming back to a book with fresh eyes is one of the best editorial techniques I know. When you come back, read the manuscript into your phone’s voice recorder. This will teach you where your voice is overly formal or just plain awkward, and the saying it aloud part confirms, “Yes, I really do want to say this, in this way.” Then play the recording back. Listening also shows where your book needs revision.

Get the deal. Before you tell any relatives the book is done. No point in getting everyone all fired up if it turns out you’ve written a “practice” memoir. When you’re contracted, an agent or publisher (or freelance editor, if you’re not ready to query or you’re self-publishing) can help navigate second thoughts. A supportive stranger’s perspective on your portrayal of a partner or relative can confirm your words are fair.

Step with caution if you’re in mid-divorce or a custody battle. But divorce papers get signed and custody gets solved, and your book will still be there when the time to publish is right.

Prepare for engagement. Plan and rehearse what you’ll respond to questions you’re dreading and how you’ll handle interactions with people in your book.

Tell your sibling, “Isn’t it fascinating how we can grow up in the same family and have such different experiences? I’d love to read your version of the story someday.”

Tell your parents, “You don’t have to read it, but I hope you’ll support me sorting out my own experiences on paper.” It’s not the first time you’ve hurt your parents’ feelings (we were all 13 once!) and it’s probably not going to be the last.

Most people who threaten to sue don’t, won’t or can’t. It’s not as easy as they think, and it’s not cheap.

There is no memoir-publishing without penalties. You are never going to get off scot-free. Someone you were very kind to will be unhappy anyway. Someone you didn’t even mention will be mad you left them out. People will remember things differently. Your book will sell a ton of copies and your friends will be jealous and even more people will read it and be mad. Or your book will hardly sell at all and your enemies will triumph. Cousin Mark will be mad you talked bad about his dad. Your mom will be upset you dug up that old family story. Your kid will be embarrassed you talked about changing their diaper.

You can’t stop people from feeling their feelings and having their own memories, and you will never finish your book if you are trying to please them more than you are trying to tell your story.

A memoir is, by definition, one person’s memory. Be honest with yourself, be kind when you can be, and put in a disclaimer about memory at the beginning. Write your best work and brace yourself—sharing your journey is worth it.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Worried about navigating your own memory as you write? Join her this Thursday for Memoir From Memory: Telling the Right Story with Confidence. 1PM Eastern, recording available if you can’t make it live. Register now.

I Acknowledge Nobody

March 4, 2021 § 30 Comments

By Suzanne Roberts

Most writers have a love/hate relationship with their book’s acknowledgements page. It’s the writer-equivalent to the 45-seconds where the actress thanks everyone under the bright lights on the Academy Awards stage, only you were probably wearing your pajamas and not a made-to-order Vera Wang gown when you compiled your own gratitude list. Even so, it’s your moment to offer thanks for those who put up with you while you were working on your book. Writing the acknowledgements also means you are nearly finished, or at least you think you are, and for those brief seconds, while you’re typing ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS, you might be delusional, but you are happy.

But when you send your manuscript off, the acknowledgements become a source of stress. Who hasn’t woken up in the middle of the night in a panic after realizing someone important was left off? After publishing six books, I believed forgetting someone was the worst of it. I never considered including someone could cause so much trouble, until it did.

In my latest book, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, I gave some backstory about my mother’s childhood; it was important for the reader to see where she came from, why she behaved in the ways she did—she was sometimes mean, but never in the abusive ways of her own parents.

Before she died, my mother read the manuscript. She knew she had veto power, as the closest people in my life do, but she hardly ever used it. She was glad I was telling her stories, though she did joke, “This is plagiarism!” When I asked what she meant, she said, “You’re stealing all my stuff.” Then she warned me that some of the family might not like what I had written about her parents.

Soon after Bad Tourist came out, I received a scolding Facebook message from my cousin, which she also posted publicly on my Facebook wall, trying “to set the record straight” about our grandparents. While I decided what to do, I blocked her so she couldn’t write more public messages. Being blocked enraged her, so she took to the internet, posting her complaints in the comment section of guest blogs and under reviews of my book. She said my book was “fabricated nonsense” and “rubbish.”

I sent her my carefully crafted response, saying “I understand your narrative is different, that the people you knew as your grandparents were different than the parents my mother grew up with, and I am sorry if this information is hurtful to you. All our narratives and our personal truths coexist and all are valid.”

She wrote back, admitting she did not know if what I had written about our grandparents was true or not, but that I had, in fact, written “lies.” She insisted I had written that she and my aunt supported the book, “throwing them under the bus.” She wrote, “Even if I said you could use my name, that’s besides the point … you never sent us a draft of this story before you published it, and you quoted in your book that family and friends had read and agreed the draft.”

I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. I went back to the chapter in question, and as I had thought, I had written no such thing. I closed my laptop and went out skiing. About a mile down the trail, I realized what she had meant: The acknowledgements page!

I had acknowledged both my cousin and my aunt as people who were “cheerleaders and confidants.” They were in the large list of people who had also read drafts of my book, giving me valuable feedback, though the sentence was clear that not everyone on that long list had read (and approved of) the book. I wrote back to my cousin, asking her to look at the actual words on the page. I said that being listed was meant to be a nice thing.

I also vowed not to include an acknowledgements page in my next book.

And I learned (or re-learned) these lessons:

  1. There’s no reason to use someone’s real name. It might seem weird to you that your husband or daughter or cousin has a different name, but most readers won’t know or won’t care (even if they know you in real life).
  2. If you use someone’s real name, make sure he or she has agreed to it in writing after reading the manuscript. If you already know they won’t approve of the material, but you’re not planning to change it, you must change the names. My cousin would have been angry with me even if I had changed her name, but her grievances would carry less weight. And if I had let her read it, and she outright disagreed with specific parts, like the recreated dialogue, I wouldn’t have changed it, but I would have let the reader know she remembered things differently than I did.
  3. Make sure whatever you’re writing is your story to tell. In this case, it was very much my story to tell. If it’s your story, you don’t need permission to tell it. If your story also happens to be a friend or family member’s story, you should get permission or risk losing the relationship. The person I needed permission from—my mother—granted it
  4. Don’t let friends and family read early drafts—ever. The parts they object to could possibly be cut in the revision process, and you’ve created trouble for yourself for nothing. Only let friends and family read the final draft (with time to change their names). And be ready to defend your writing—you are the only one with ultimate veto power.
  5. Even though you think it’s an honor, some people might not want to be listed in your acknowledgements page.

In my cousin’s last message, she wrote, “I’m sad this has happened because we did genuinely care about you … I do wish you all the best for the future.”

Losing my aunt and cousin feels like I’ve lost another piece of my mother, which makes me profoundly sad. But at the same time, wasn’t their “care” always already conditional, based on the tacit agreement to hide our family secrets?

When we write the stories we must tell, even if others would rather we kept them secret, it’s never a betrayal. The real act of violence is in the attempt to silence someone else’s voice. Anyone who genuinely cares about you, in the present tense and unconditionally, will eventually come to understand you must continue to tell your own truth.


Suzanne Roberts is the author of Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Follow her on Instagram @suzanneroberts28.

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