JANUARY 29, 2013 11:09AM

Asking permission:

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I’m writing a story about what happened during my sister’s recent coma.  She was in a coma for weeks, on a breathing tube, and there were times when we worried that she wouldn’t make it.  I drove up to Birmingham, Alabama to help my parents, who were also suffering from the flu that had flattened Laurie.  She was the person who usually took care of them, and even though my stubbornly independent parents didn’t want me to come, I felt that I had to.

So I wrote an essay describing what those days were like, worrying about Laurie, trying to help Mom and Dad, trying to help Laurie’s son, Nate, who was also ill.  My writer’s group suggested I call it, “While You Were Out,” which is the new title.  When I went up to Alabama again recently, I decided to ask Nate and my other sister, Valerie, if I could use their Facebook posts.

When I described to Laurie what I was writing about, she became very indignant.  “Aren’t you going to ask me for permission?” she asked. 

“I’m not using your Facebook postings – you didn’t have any Facebook posts.”  After all, it’s kind of difficult to post on Facebook when you’re unconscious!

“But it’s my story,” Laurie said.

“It’s not your story.  It’s about me coming up here while you were in the hospital.”

“But that’s my story.”

I was rather surprised. I’ve been told by my family that I should write about this, that or the other, that I shouldn’t post this picture or that picture on Facebook.  I was told that I had invaded their privacy.  I have come up with a solution for this.  If they don’t want me to post their pictures, I take them down.  But when it comes to the stories I write, those are MY stories.  Nobody in my family is planning to write the story of my life.  My mother is very interested in tracing her ancestry, and I love helping with that.  It’s fascinating to find out where you came from, what types of people are in your background.  All of that information is fine to write about.

But when it comes to what happened yesterday, they are intensely private and can’t imagine sharing their lives with the world.  I mean, come on, they didn’t even want to have a home health nurse even when everyone in the family was flattened by the flu!

But I have come up with a solution to this problem.  I have them read the material I wrote.  I gave my sister the essay and we talked about the information in it.  She corrected some of the things I had written, items I didn’t know.  The dialogue was very helpful – I got the real story on some events and she got to see that what I was writing wasn’t negative or hurtful in any way.  On the contrary, I was impressed as always with the strength of my relatives, how my crazy family manages to pull it together when things go wrong, how they support and strengthen each other, and how their humor always manages to come through, even in the most critical situation.  Here was my sister, literally dying in her bed, and she sent a text message to her friend, Diana, that said, “Houston to my brain, I’m not getting enough oxygen.”  Diana called her son, Nate, who checked on her and began the process of transferring her to the hospital, a process that ultimately saved her life.

When she read the essay, Laurie relaxed a bit.  She said she’d like to write about her experiences in the hospital and I told her I’d love to help her put that together.  And my nephew, Nate, came up later and hugged me.  He said, “You can use my Facebook posts if you want.”  I was startled – I hadn’t even asked him yet.  But see, that’s the thing, in my family, communication occurs constantly.  There are so many of us, it’s like that old game of telephone, where one person whispers something to another who whispers it to another, who etc.

I suggest that if you’re going to write about family members, you let them know of your plans.  If the material you’re writing about is very sensitive, remember that they have the option of suing you for slander. 

Per Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defamation:

In common law jurisdictions, slander refers to a malicious, false,[2][not specific enough to verify] and defamatory spoken statement or report, while libel refers to any other form of communication such as written words or images.[3] Most jurisdictions allow legal actions, civil and/or criminal, to deter various kinds of defamation and retaliate against groundless criticism. Related to defamation is public disclosure of private facts, which arises where one person reveals information that is not of public concern, and the release of which would offend a reasonable person. "Unlike [with] libel, truth is not a defense for invasion of privacy."[4][not verified in body] 

So be careful.  Be truthful if you’re writing memoir.  And make sure the people you love know that you’re writing out of love for them, and not out of some crazy desire for self-promotion.  Let them know you’re writing because you respect and love them and want to record their lives because they’re part of yours.  And if you ARE writing out of a crazy desire for self-promotion, maybe you should become a reality TV star, Honey.

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Thanks for this. I'm an aspiring authoress, myself, although I tend to have nearly constant writer's block. It sucks. A couple of my ideas are scripted as non-fiction; they're about my family, my failed miserable excuse for a marriage, etc. I've already decided that I'm going to write under a pseudonym, and am going to change the names of everyone in my books. I figured that would prevent any rightful suing from going on. If one of them just so happens to pick up one of my books and read it and say to herself or himself, "hey, that REALLY sounds like me", and want to come after me about it, all I'll have to say is, "prove it's you." That's also where creative license comes into play for me... if I don't want to put verbatim what was said in a conversation, I can change words and still mean the same thing and it'd only matter to me if it's not the original. I respect you for doing your best to get it right though. Maybe I simply have no respect for that sort of thing. Some of the things I'll be writing about, none of the subjects would approve of. But I feel as if I didn't write about it, I'd be doing someone somewhere a disservice.
Thank you for the comment. I believe we have the right to write about our lives as they are, even if some of those things are painful for other people. If they really object, I would make it fiction instead. Changing the names to protect the innocent :).

But the truth is, if they object, they just bring attention to something you've written. I have had some very difficult bosses in the past. I write about them without using their names. But it wouldn't be in their best interests to confront me about this because what I write is true. I am actually doing them a favor by not identifying them.

That being said, I don't like the idea of using my writing to get revenge, so I try not to write about people that hurt me. Sometimes, if what happened with them shaped me some way (as my divorce did) then I will write about it as it happened to ME, not as a way to get back at the other person. It's so tricky, isn't it?

I worry so much about not being truthful when I'm writing non-fiction. And I worry a lot about whether someone else's story is fair game. You might like my essay on this, "I'm not writing about Robin." (http://www.literal-latte.com/2012/09/im-not-writing-about-robin/)

Thank you again for your kind words and best of luck with your own writing!
I absolutely agree :) I don't think I'd write it for revenge... I hope that I'd write it not only to maybe help someone else out there whose eyes rest upon my work, but also as a sort of release for me. Kind of a larger scope of blogging, hahaha. I'll definitely check out your link :)