Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Last week at Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference I was surprised by the number of writers who came with their own story– either memoir or narrative nonfiction. At meal after meal someone at the table would invariably describe his or her own story of overcoming some form of abuse. This is a complicated genre for a number of reasons:
- First, there is a limited market for stories of abuse and recovery. For a new one to catch an editor’s or agent’s attention it must be distinctive– offering a whole different take.
- The question on an agent’s or editor’s mind is always this: has enough time passed so that the writer has the perspective needed to make the book universal. Or is the writer working out his or her own recovery on the pages of the manuscript? Or worse, is this book the writer’s subconscious tool of revenge?
- If it is memoir, the voice needs to be unforgettable with application to all of us. Voices like Jeanette Walls’ in Glass Castle or Liz Murray’s in Breaking Night are few and far between.
- If it’s not memoir and not the story of a celebrity or someone with a huge well-developed platform, it’s going to be a very difficult sell. How many of us go into a book store asking for a story about such a tough subject. Most people read for pleasure or for self-improvement. It’s painful enough to contemplate abuse for a few minutes but how much more intense over the course of a whole book?
- Is the timing right? Oprah disclosed her own abuse only after her celebrity status was well-established. Because everyone knew her emotional strength, the story was all the more powerful.
- Writing a book that details abuse of any kind for the inspirational market requires highly developed writing skills. Forget the old adage, show don’t tell. Any scenes of abuse need to be told not shown. Jan Kern, who wrote the award-winning book about teen cutting, Scars That Wound, Scars That Heal, stressed that in writing the book she was ever mindful that if she described a razor blade pressed against skin, the description could actually stimulate a cutter and cause her to pick up her own blade and cut. We need to be careful not to incite with our writing and to be aware that describing abuse can cause flashbacks in those who’ve been victims of that abuse. It’s a tough assignment.
In my nonfiction class, I briefly covered the issue of permissions and libel. Several writers came up to me afterward with questions. One writer was incensed by the suggestion that a publisher would require permission from her abusive spouse before she could write about him. Several assumed they could write about someone if they changed just a few details about that person. Not necessarily so. If we are writing about a private person– not a celebrity or a politician or a public official– that person does not even have to prove malice to win a libel suit in court. We live in a litigious society. If you have shown that person in a bad light and someone might be able to recognize him or her, they can sue you. If you are talking about someone connected to you– ex-spouse, relative, teacher– it won’t be difficult for those who know you to figure out who you are referring to. You would have to prove the implications you made are true in a court of law and even if you win, costly lawsuits can break the bank. No publisher will be willing to take those risks along with you.
In her book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott said, “If the people in your life didn’t want you to write about them, they shouldn’t have behaved so poorly…” Funny, yes, but unfortunately, it’s not that easy.
A book every writer needs to read is, The Copyright, Permission and Libel Handbook: A Step-By-Step Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers by Lloyd Jassin and Steven C. Schechter. Read the section on libel. Read it twice and mark it up with a pencil. Then read it again. You need to know this stuff, even if you are writing fiction. If you’ll look at your book contract you’ll see that you are responsible for everything you write. Not your publisher. Not your agent. You.
Are you surprised? Did you know you can sued for libel for a novel? Did you know you cannot be sued on behalf of someone who’s dead? Let’s talk. What you think?
Planning to write your own life story? You need to read this. Click to Tweet
Memoir and narrative nonfiction, oh my! What constitutes libel and defamation? Click to Tweet
@wendylawton identifies the most complicated genre. Click to Tweet