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When Writing a Memoir, What’s in a Name?

When writing a memoir, the very act can dredge up a whole lot of soul searching in the process. How much do you want to reveal, and how much should be left in the past?

This is an especially poignant issue if your to-be-published story involves someone who isn’t portrayed in a good light. Which it probably does. Most people don’t achieve memoir-worthy accomplishments without some serious pushback after all.

That makes it tricky.

If the person in question is still in your life, obviously you’re at significant risk of starting a fight with him or her by publishing those true unflattering details. But even if he or she is long gone, you might still be associated with other people who have a different perspective on the matter, whether rightly or wrongly.

They might remember details differently than you. They might be far too into avoiding controversy. Or perhaps they believe in leaving family skeletons locked up behind boarded, padlocked and chained closet doors.

When you’re writing a memoir, there’s just a whole lot of room to hurt and offend. So here’s the Writing Rule to live by while working in this genre…

It’s up to you whether to include real names or not.

Memoirs inevitably include details about people who did you wrong since life itself is filled with people who did you wrong. Particularly life worth writing about.

So do you use those people’s real names or not?

There isn’t an easy answer here, what with all the different angles and potential outcomes to consider. So let’s discuss them in as much depth as a single Innovative Editing blog post will allow.

One very good question you don’t want to avoid is this: How much does it mean to you to publish people’s real names?

Is it going to hurt you if you assign aliases to protect the not-so-innocent? Will you feel as if your story isn’t as liberating as you meant it to be? Or that it isn’t as honest?

Once you’re done contemplating all of that, remember that you’re not the only person who deserves consideration here. There’s the perpetrator, yes, but also any number of family and friend bystanders.

That’s why you also want to ask: How much will it hurt my loved ones if I use real names?

Because it really might hurt them. A lot.

Perhaps they were hoping that everyone had moved on from past events, including you. Perhaps there’s some embarrassment involved to them through association. Maybe they were even involved or inappropriately un-involved somehow.

If you’re instantly ready to throw their feelings under the bus, you genuinely might want to talk to a therapist first. The information you’re so set on broadcasting probably isn’t going to give you the long-term satisfaction you’re looking for.

It really can’t.

You get long-term satisfaction out of a job well done, not our of spitefulness – no matter how well deserved it might be. In considering others’ feelings, you’re ultimately considering your own well-being.

This brings us right into our final question to consider when you’re writing a memoir: How much will it hurt you? The writer.

That’s hardly a reversal or even restatement of the first question. You can very much want to use real names while knowing you’re not ready to face the consequences of doing so.

In that case, it’s okay. Don’t feel as if you have to call people out so directly. Just don’t feel as if you can’t or aren’t allowed to either.

The question might not be an easy one. But when you’re writing a memoir, the ultimate decision still definitely rests with you.

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