Calling It Like It Is: “Do I Use Their Real Names”?

 

In the post “Your Life Story: How Much to Tell”  (September 17, 2011), I promised a follow-up article that addressed the issue of whether or not to use people’s real names in your memoir. Here is that promised follow-up post:

“What should I do? Should I use their real names?”

This is a question that gets asked every time I teach Write Your Life. My students, and many of my clients, are writing about their own lives. But they can’t very well write about their lives without writing about the people in their lives. None of us lives in a vacuum (except maybe a monk living in a cave in the Himalayas, but so far I haven’t had any cave-dwelling monks take my class).

Of course, this question wouldn’t arise if the people in my students’ lives had behaved nicely. My students aren’t worried about writing that Uncle Saul was an absolute angel. Let’s face it, we want to write about our lives because it’s been hard. We had a harrowing childhood or we’ve escaped from an abusive relationship or we’ve built our dream despite all the naysayers. If there’s drama or conflict (and drama and conflict make for good story), then at least one person was a jerk.

But just because someone was a jerk doesn’t mean we want to ruin their life by exposing them in public. (And we certainly don’t want to end up getting sued for slander or libel.) So what do you do? Do you write your story as fiction? Do you move your town halfway across the country and rename all the characters? Do you change all recognizable traits?

Anne Lamott provided a hilarious answer at a reading I attended many years ago. Someone in the audience had asked the very question at hand and, in true Lamott style, she said: “Give the character a small penis.” (Clearly Uncle Saul would not step forward to claim slander if it meant he’d have to identify himself with the small-membered character.) Once the laughter in the audience had died down, someone else asked, “What if the character is a woman?” Without missing a beat, Lamott said, “Give the character a small penis.”

If anyone tries this tack, I’d love to hear how it works. If, however, you’d rather not mention genitalia in your book, you’re still left with the question: “Do I use their real names?”

The answer I usually give students and clients comes in three parts:

1) Write your first draft exactly as it happened, using all real names and places.

2) When you’re ready to sit down to your second draft (or third or fourth), then you can decide what you’re going to do about the name issue.

3) Before publishing your memoir, get feedback from others and, if necessary, consult an attorney.

Here’s my thinking behind this three-step approach:

1) You (and every writer that ever lived) already battles with enough resistance and procrastination when trying to write, don’t make it worse by censoring yourself. The best way to write a first draft is to remove all censorship and pour it out onto the page. (Save the editing and critical thinking for a later draft.)

2) This is one place where procrastination will serve you. Put off your decision about whether to use real names until a later draft.

3) The purpose of getting feedback from others is that we’re far too close to our own writing (and our own story) to see it clearly. Hire an editor or enlist a trusted friend (trusted to be kind, but also to tell the truth) and ask them how they think you’ve portrayed a particular character. You might be surprised. You may think you’ve portrayed Uncle Saul as a complete ogre, and your editor or friend may find him endearing. (There may be no need for the small penis after all.)

In the end, you’ve got to make a decision you can live with. Whatever feedback or advice you get, you’re the one who has to live with the decision, and any consequences.

I (and other readers) would love to hear how you have solved this dilemma of whether or not to use real names.

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3 comments on “Calling It Like It Is: “Do I Use Their Real Names”?

  1. Sameyh says:

    This was very insightful Nomi, thank you. The last part is a bit scary but true esp in today’s law suit infested world.

  2. KorElement says:

    That’s ironic, I’m on my first draft of my first novel and your advice was exactly the path that I had already took. I figured to write it first and I could always change the names later. My reasoning was that it gives me something concrete and real to visualize while I write the story. I’m glad I found this blog, its very very enlightening… Time to read some more 🙂

  3. andrea says:

    Thank you for a simple, straight forward answer. I’d sort of come to that conclusion anyway( re writing the first draft as it happened). You’re advice has given me peace of mind and confirmation that I’m doing the right thing.

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