Before I ever published anything, I wrote mostly for myself. As an outlet for new discoveries about God or myself or the world. Or a place to struggle through matters of faith or relationships or parenting and work through past traumas. Sometimes, I wrote to vent.
I wrote in short, lots of things I was unlikely to say openly. Not secrets, exactly, but still things that might upset people if they knew. My mother’s brain tumor back when I was a teenager and my parents’ subsequent divorce and the lingering dysfunctions it caused in my family, for example. Or my early marriage struggles with my mother-in-law.
Writing was a way to move troubling matters out of the part of my brain that wakes in the night and worries into a more neutral medium where I could store them, reconsider them, ponder them in my heart.
In any case, when I assembled my first batch of writings for publication, I found I had a job before me: to somehow unsay things that might upset the people I wrote about.
From my publisher’s perspective, it was a legal matter. Although libel—misrepresenting the truth with malicious intent—is hard to prove, invasion of privacy is not. And I was amazed to discover how often I invaded others’ privacy in the stories that make up my memoirs. A friend’s cancer journey mentioned in one of my essays, for example, and a funny conversation about faith I had with a blind man I met on a bus became privacy right minefields.
My editor said I had three choices: cut the offending material, get releases from the people I was writing about, or alter names and details to make them unrecognizable. For that first book I used mostly the first two strategies—reluctantly, I must admit, and complaining all the way. This is ridiculous! How can this be necessary?…
If you can figure out a way to cut out the problematic part and still get your point across, that’s probably the best solution. Also the most painful. But cutting generally improves writing. (This blog post started out 1000 words longer, and, trust me, it’s better this way.) As my husband likes to point out, no one ever leaves church saying, “Boy, that was a great sermon—just wish it had lasted half an hour longer!”
The second solution—getting releases—was the most repugnant to me. Lots of work composing release letters, getting them signed, going to the post office! (I generally avoid all work that involves a post office.) Worse: The person might, after all that work, say no. Worst of all: They’d know I had invaded their privacy. Kind of like rhetorical rape, when you think about it. And I’d know they knew. And we’d all feel bad about it.
Surprisingly enough, everyone I asked said yes, although one person wanted to remain nameless. The guy on the bus, though—whose business card I found in my bag later, which enabled me to contact him—stipulated that I had to use both his names to be sure people recognized him. People are frequently flattered to make it into someone’s book.
Nowadays, I use mostly the third solution: changing names and details. I avoid a lot of topics from the get-go that I think may upset people. But then, if I absolutely need to tell some story that has potentially sensitive material in it, I give those involved new names and professions and hometowns and often a sex change operation.
Bottom line it’s illegal—not to mention a potential violation of the Golden Rule—to play fast and loose with others’ laundry. (Was that a mixed metaphor?) But avoiding it is no big deal.
How have you had to revise your writing in order to respect others’ privacy?