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AUTOBIOGRAPHIES – HOW MUCH DO YOU TELL?

January 22, 2016

I do a weekly column for www.letstalknevada. I’ll admit they’re autobiographical stories about my life, which started with us living overseas and evolved into just about everything. What started as a few goofy stories from Turkey ended up going back to when I first joined the Air Force, then working forward again. Since people enjoy them and the site wants me to continue, I figured I might as well start from the beginning and do my memoir on the cheap. No restrictions, no rules, just tell what I want. I have no publisher no editors except myself, and no restrictions on how I tell it except myself. That got me thinking about those of you considering, and those that have done memoirs.

How much do you tell, what do you tell, how do you limit yourselves and why?

WHY?

The most compelling thing about doing an autobiography (same as memoir), is why are you doing one and what do you except to get out of it? Is it to make money, set the record straight, entertain people, set a legacy or a combination?

Unless you’re a celebrity or have a super-compelling life, the chances are you’re going to have a garage full of books. Your shot at landing a commercial publisher are slim if you don’t fit those two categories. I know I’m neither. I just got lucky with Let’s Talk Nevada. I happen to write in a way that makes the stories mildly interesting. That’s good enough to do without pay! I neither expect nor demand it. My legacy is more to entertain than for anything else. I’m not trying to set any record straight because I haven’t been wronged anywhere… well enough to compel me to tempt fate and lawsuits. I’m certainly no celebrity, though if any of my published books skyrocket in sales, well…even then, I’ll keep plugging along.

Why do you want to tell your story? Is it compelling? Will others buy it? Only a select few? Is it just for the legacy? Set the story straight? Once that whatever is decided, what and how much are you going to tell? What risks are you going to take? How much do you want to embarrass yourself, put yourself at legal risk or at the expense of hurting others?

NAMES

Whenever anyone is relating a personal account of something that’s true, or basically true from their memory, whether exactly as they see it, or colored for entertainment purposes, there’s usually someone else involved. Because of that, there are issues of dragging someone else’s name into the equation. In this litigious world of ours, are you ready to get sued? What constitutes sue-worthy material or just being mentioned as a participant? How far can you go without crossing the line into slander?

How much do you tell, do you want to tell and how much do you change the real story to keep it real yet keep you safe from the others coming after you. Do you even need to worry about it?

Depending on the particular story, you can tell most things without, or by just changing the names of the others. In some cases, especially if the stories are complimentary and non-controversial, you can use real names.

In my stories, unless they’re already a celebrity or a family member, I change the names, unless I have explicit permission from them to use their real names. Since I’m not making any money from this autobiography, there are no funds involved either.

INCIDENTS

Famous or infamous incidents can get dicey. If you were involved in something newsworthy or something say…classified as in military, would that be something to tell? How about something legal? How can you talk about it without getting your butt in a wringer? How much far can you go? What if your whole autobiography is based on that one incident?

I guess it’s time to hire a bevvy of lawyers on that one!

With my stories, I’ve had a lot of stuff I can’t talk about. There are so many things I’d like to tell about but either I can’t or won’t because of the possibility, no matter how remote, it might violate the uniform code of military justice. I won’t even go there. There are some civilian things I’ve been involved in that I won’t touch for similar reasons. How much do I tell? I know where I’d stop!

LIMITS

You have a new autobiography you’re dying to tell, but you start thinking of how much you can tell. Those nasty little limits get in the way. How far do you go? How much do you tell? You have to know your limits. Whatever your goal is, the last thing you want to do is end up in court! That’s where you may need to bone up on your research, legal or otherwise.

Happy writing!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2016 2:53 am

    You have written a wonderful article, much of which I identify with. I self published a book ‘WHY ME? a memoir” in 2012. One of the main reasons I wrote was to leave a legacy for my children and grandchildren–but I have to admit that secretly I had grandiose visions of it becoming a best seller. .Most who read my humorous memoirs loved it or at least pretended to love it. Hey thats what friends and family are for!.I am only an ordinary person and didn’t survive a publicized catastrophic event so I depended on people I knew to promote my book.
    I was told I should write “Why Me” two ,but it is very time consuming and expensive. I recently suffered an unwelcome life change and I write to alleviate stress. I enjoy writing my blog, writing for Face book and for two condo news papers. If you have a chance check out my blog. I would value your opinion. Good luck with your writing .

    • January 23, 2016 9:33 pm

      Elaine,

      Thanks so much for the kind comments and welcome to my web site! Yeah, I know what you mean about relatives and friends comments. At least in my case, none of my relatives and friends ever read my columns. They are barely aware of them! As for my fantasy novel, well, that’s a bit different. I have plenty of good comments from strangers and non-relatives to counterbalance theirs, so the signs are encouraging.

      I took a look at your web site and it’s pretty cool. You write some interesting stories. I don’t normally read autobiographies but I still found some of your stuff intriguing. Keep it up!

      Glad you found me and I hope my articles can help you in the future!

      Fred

      • January 24, 2016 11:15 pm

        #1 You’ve got the 1st amendment backing you up. That’s most of what and all you’ll ever need. Seems like you’re more concerned about the feelings of ‘others’. Therefore:
        #2 Get permission from the owner of those ‘feelings’. If/when this isn’t possible (or likely!):
        #3 Mark becomes ‘Marc’, Smith becomes ‘Smythe’, and disclaimers become quite valuable. Two quick examples that I found, compliments of the Google Gods (that which you would slap on the copyright page):
        • Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals. (For memoir or recent history)
        • I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed the names of individuals and places, I may have changed some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations and places of residence. (For memoir, autobiography)

        As for me, I write pure fiction, but there’s a bit of a memoir/autobiography-in-pieces in everything I write. There’s no avoiding it—I triple-dog-dare any writer in our known world to say this isn’t true of them and their work as well. All individuals out there who may (or hopefully may not) lay claim to identifying characterization of any of my characters, I say to them: Prove it. If you do, then good luck erasing it from all the minds who’ve already read it. If you sue me (and somehow win the BS lawsuit), you can have half of everything I own…

        …hope you weren’t expecting much!

        Now, if you’re more, or sorta-concerned, about your own feelings of whether you should or shouldn’t…well, that’s a stickier kind of thing. I will say this, though: if you questioned it, you must want to do it…so DO IT. Life’s too short not to.

      • January 27, 2016 3:31 am

        Melswiggins, welcome to my web site and thanks for the great response! I think about all those things and you are correct. Still I prefer to take the cautious route just to avoid the possibility of a lawsuit or hurting feelings, just because I can figure ways of telling the story intact. I often change names or leave things vague for that reason. If someone want’s to come out of the woodwork and dispute facts, let them write their own account of the story!

        I really appreciate your account. It says a lot of great stuff. Thanks and all the best!

        Fred

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