Writing non-fiction is an interesting beast. Most of the time, I’d venture that my job is a bit easier than that of a novelist. I don’t have to dream up complex stories from my imagination. I’m not required to keep straight the details of fictional families. It’s not my job to create the perfect ending. I deal in truths, telling what happened, plain and simple.
And yet, because I write memoirs, the people I write about are real. I can’t hide behind a veil of fiction. The characters’ names might be changed, but they knew who they are.
This is, in my opinion, the hardest aspect of writing a memoir. You feel an obligation to honestly and accurately portray real-life people but–here’s the kicker!–you want to do it in a way that doesn’t offend them. An easy task if the person is your lifelong bestie. Less so if you’re just not that into her.
I went on a few less-than-stellar dates during my year of friending. There were 52 outings, after all. You can’t expect them all to be winners. In each case, nothing was wrong with my dinner mate, per se. We just didn’t click. And those dinner dates were the scenes in MWF Seeking BFF that were the hardest to write.
While writing MWF, my rule of thumb was that I was allowed (encouraged!) to make fun of myself, but not of other people. My book is meant to be funny, but not mean-spirited. So when I sat down to write the scene of a very awkward first friend-date, I had a tough go of it. I wanted to communicate what the dinner date felt like from my end–including the uncomfortable realization that we had not one thing in common–without defaulting to “she was weird.” Because, well, maybe I was the weirdo.
So, yeah. As a memoirist (oooh! I’m a memoirist! I’ve never said that before…) the hardest scenes are those where you open up about someone you might not particularly like. Because that person is out there, and will likely be reading your book. Her mother might be reading, too, or even her husband. And defaulting to mocking or bashing said real-live person doesn’t mean you’re a braver or funnier author. It means you took the easy way out.
How do you handle writing about real people in your work? What if the subject is someone you don’t like?