Q & A: On Telling the Truth

chain on concrete :: kaley dykstra

Question: When I am writing personal essays or memoir, there are pieces of the story that involve other people and, sometimes, the not-so-great things they did to me. How can I write these stories without bad-mouthing these people, and without risking a lawsuit? Thanks so much!

Oh! What a fantastic question!

I was recently talking with Jeanette LeBlanc {who is also this week's guest on In Her Room} about the challenge of knowing when to tell a story. Sometimes, we write a story that includes in it the experiences or challenges of another. When is it our place to tell another person's story? And how do we keep true to our stories without harming others?

There are a few tools I employ to write my truth without slandering others.

The first I use is time. Sometimes, having great distance from an experience gives us an even better understanding of it. Often, I find that the lesson from a given experience changes as I grow and change. There are essays I wrote ten years ago that have never been published, simply because I was too close to the subject matter, and too close to the person they involved. Now, with time and physical (and emotional) distance from that situation, I could consider revisiting that writing and discovering the true stories I want to tell now.

Another tool I use is amalgamation -- a fancy word that simply means uniting. There are times where the story I am telling {about my OWN experience} is something that has occurred over a few situations: multiple relationships, or several years of my childhood. In these situations, the story I am trying to tell is about my own learning and evolution -- which means the exact details of the other people involved are less important. Sometimes, combining elements of a few ex-lovers or situations can be beneficial to telling the story. Creating an amalgam to be the catalyst in your writing isn't necessarily lying -- so long as the important details, and the story itself, are true.

I would say the number one tool I use, though, is related to both of these. It is the focused and deeply introspective practice of only telling the story that is mine: digging in my heart for the lessons and the challenges that I face, and sharing the wisdom that I have learned. It can be easy to write about a traumatic experience, or a life-changing event, that included other people and focus on what they did {or did not do} and how it impacted us. But to avoid harming others, and to lessen the risk of slander lawsuits, a subtle but profound shift in the focus of the story can make a world of difference.

I can use a personal example here: I have written and shared some pieces about my childhood, about trauma I experienced. In some of these pieces, I reference specific actions that were taken against me (against my will). But when writing these essays, I try hard to focus on my own experience of these actions: how I felt them in my heart and body, how I learned from and recovered from them. Instead of writing a laundry list of abuses, my focus is instead on what I learned from them, how my body has shifted and changed through them, the greater wisdom I have cultivated from surviving.

The short answer to your question is this: when you think about writing on an experience that involves others -- especially a traumatic or painful experience -- spend some time free-writing around your intent behind this writing. Are you sharing a greater universal truth you learned? Are you writing to process something that happened in the past? Are you writing to connect with others who may have had a similar experience, to share across community? If you are truly worried about the impact a piece might have, don't share it -- YET. Spend some time and figure out if it was written for your own process, or others.

And if you reach a point where you need to share the experience, but still feel stuck on the how, send me a note -- I'd be happy and honored to talk through this with you.

Have you got a question about writing, storytelling, personal ritual, or life? Drop me a note -- I would LOVE to answer your question on the blog!