During a recent online discussion at Taipei Writers Group, a member asked about the legal ramifications of disclosing controversial material in one’s memoir. I immediately thought of fellow writer and family friend Leigh Hopkinson, who published her memoir “Two Decades Naked” in April. TWG’s first guest contributor, Leigh reflects on her memoir experience and offers some advice for writers considering the sharing the more sensitive times of our lives.
As writers, we’re often encouraged to write what we know, so it’s unsurprising that memoir has become such a popular genre. However, our proximity to our subject matter is also what makes writing a memoir challenging. During the three years I spent writing Two Decades Naked, a memoir about striptease recently published by Hachette, that challenge manifested in different ways at different stages of the process.
Initially, I decided to disguise my memories as a novel. But a novel has its own genre requirements and life doesn’t unfold in the same way. I spent a lot of time trying to cram the messiness of my past into the constraints of fiction. It didn’t work, partly because I wasn’t very good at making things up. In fact, I was trying to do the exact opposite, to recount my memories as accurately as possible. Eventually, I had to acknowledge that I was writing a memoir. This forced me to address my concerns about sharing my story truthfully, which is an essential part of the memoir-writing process.
Memoir is classified non-fiction, so readers and publishers alike expect memoirists to tell the truth, to the best of their recollection. I was concerned about complete disclosure, because I didn’t know how my truth would be received. Like autobiography, memoir is an intensely personal genre: when the work is criticised, it can feel like you’re being personally rejected. On top of this, social stigma surrounds stripping and sex work in general, so I knew that writing about my past could negatively affect my future, as well as the lives of family and friends. However, owning my truth felt important and I was motivated to write to make sense of my life, which isn’t possible if you’re fabricating details. And while I couldn’t control other people’s responses, I would be better positioned within myself to deal with any potential fallout if I told my truth. Also, selfishly, I wanted to be published. With non-fiction comprising around 70% of the book market, shying away from memoir would have made the road to publication even more difficult.
I persevered, and soon realised there were ways of controlling if, when and how information was publicly disclosed. For example, I had the option of writing under a pseudonym. This didn’t resonate, but I did want to reduce the impact of my story’s publication on other people. So I decided not to publish my memoir until after my parents had retired in case it affected their livelihoods. (Other memoirists have waited until certain family members have passed away.) I also employed the ‘if in doubt, take it out’ rule, which meant writing the tough stuff, but removing it if I had any doubts about its accuracy, if I felt unduly bothered by its inclusion, or if it wasn’t central to the story.
As memoirists, we can get hung up on telling ‘the whole truth’, but to write memoir is to write your version of events. We all experience life personally, so our viewpoint can never be wholly objective. In fact, memoir is by its very nature subjective: it demands we recant our own unique story. Also, memory is unreliable and the way we remember fragmented, spatial rather than chronological. For these reasons, I gave family and friends a later draft of the manuscript to check for accuracy, and at their suggestion, made several small changes.
I also took my writing teacher’s advice and let the emotional heart or message of the story guide my selection of material. Initially, this felt like a strange kind of honesty, but as I wrote on, I realised it was sound advice. What we leave out affects the telling as much as what we put in. And I simply couldn’t fit every detail of my stripping life over two decades into 300 pages! I trusted the emotional integrity of the work would carry through, regardless of what was conflated or left out.
Not all memoirists realise at the onset (I definitely didn’t) that memoir is afforded certain liberties not extended to other forms of non-fiction such as journalism. It’s considered perfectly acceptable to conflate characters and change identifying characteristics, and to alter sequences of events—necessary, even, in order to tell a good story and to protect individual privacy. Coming from a background in journalism, it took me a while to get used to this idea. However, I could alert the reader by including a disclaimer (I did), and the pros far outweighed the cons. It allowed me to streamline the narrative, protect identities and avoid legal ramifications.
Every publisher will have a manuscript legally checked before it goes to print. However, the author’s contract may indemnify the publisher against potential claims or actions, leaving the author solely liable. If this is the case, the last word really does rest with you, the writer, so if in doubt, leave it out. And if you’re self-publishing, I’d recommend getting your manuscript legally checked beforehand. It’s a small step in the long journey to publication, the end point of which should be marked by celebration, not commiseration.
In my experience, writing a memoir can be a confronting process, but with perseverance, deliberation, self-belief, and the support of a good writing community, it can also be a rewarding one. While it’s too soon to tell how my memoir has been received by the public at large, initial feedback from friends and community has been positive. Either way, I’ve come to view the publication of my memoir as a personally significant milestone in what will hopefully be a life-long writing journey.
The Memoir Book by Patty Miller
The Paris Review Interview – Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir No. 1
The Book Club – Jennifer Byrne Presents: Memoir
Leigh Hopkinson is a New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based writer and editor. She has an Associate Degree in Professional Writing and Editing, and a Graduate Diploma in Journalism. Her non-fiction has appeared in numerous publications on both sides of the Tasman. Leigh has also worked fleetingly as a yoga teacher and prolifically as a table dancer. TWO DECADES NAKED is her first book.
Learn more about Leigh Hopkinson at www.leighhopkinson.com.
You can also follow her on Facebook.
Buy Two Decades Naked instore or online.
Have you considered writing a memoir? What has been holding you back? Or what research have you done that might benefit other writers? Let’s start a conversation.