Memoir musings 1: defamation for dummies

Dear Reader, if reflections on writing are not your bag, stay tuned for another installment of the memoir, coming soon. Also, TW below: suicidal ideation.

Writing a memoir is not for the faint of heart. People often joke about putting things in their memoirs, or of what they’ll write when they retire etc, but the strange combination of detachment and unflinching honesty which is required to write a memoir requires fortitude and therapy in roughly equal amounts.

To taste the sea, all one needs is one gulp.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

My mentor Howard Norman asked me why I had applied to him for help. I’ve published more than a dozen novels and understand, obviously, the discipline required to write (and to deal with the vagaries of publishing, which is a whole other matter). I understand, I hope, structure and pace and developing characters. But writing fiction, even if autobiographically inspired, is a different beast to a memoir. A memoir is not a history, and, as Howard Norman reminded me, it requires many of the same elements of fiction writing. But the intersection with Others, and the need to understand and describe your own responses and reactions, are two things not required by fiction, and which I need to get a handle on.

I have a tendency toward the dense and the summary, for example, which means that I need to go back and develop further. For example, I began one of my chapters with ‘I celebrated my sixteenth birthday by deciding it was time to kill myself’. I give a brief overview of the factors that led to this, but it needs more than a flippant faux-dramatic sentence. Similarly I mention finishing my PhD at the same time as another event happening: apparently I need to explain a bit about my compulsion to study and how I have managed it among the unfolding chaos. Howard says: slow down. Explain.

Which brings me to the Other People problem. I have not included very much about my daughter’s growing up with a father developing Alzheimer’s, as well as having been otherwise difficult, because I don’t want to describe her experience. But in memoir, it is important to give the full picture of your main characters. I need to explain how I thought she was coping with things. So it’s tricky.

And then there’s defamation. There are some things I know I will not be able to publish, but I need to write my perspective of what happened and edit later. Legal Aid gives a handy guide to defamation in Western Australia which I have by my computer:

If someone causes harm to your reputation by publishing material about you that changes the way people feel about you, you may have been harmed in a legal sense. Not all offensive, embarrassing or upsetting remarks cause harm to your reputation.

Defamation is when words have been spoken or written which:

  • harm your reputation in the eyes of ordinary people in the community,
  • harm your reputation in your trade or profession (for example, lead you to get less work), or
  • are likely to result in you being shunned, avoided, made fun of, or despised.

A claim for defamation is a complex, time consuming and expensive legal matter.

The law in Western Australia encourages people to resolve disputes about defamation without going to court. Even if defamation is proven, it does not mean the court will award you much or anything in damages.

Fortunately for memoir-istas everywhere there’s also this: Things like gossip or embarrassing stories are unpleasant, but do not amount to defamation unless they cause the required harm to your reputation.

So, I need to test to make sure that I don’t include that kind of material. (Luckily you can’t defame the dead, so some of it will be fine!)

The process of writing continues to be a joy, a puzzle, a privilege. I am grateful to have this time to be doing it, and if you’re considering doing it to, investing in a mentor might just be the thing you need.

Note to self: Must mention the PhD!