I am often asked about the ethics of memoir. Specifically, is it ethical to write about another person? Can I be sued? Should I use real names?
My answers are, respectively: Yes and no, maybe, and definitely not.
There. Now that that’s cleared up, I’d like to talk about ethics in teaching. I have some hard and sure rules in my private classes.
1) We always use the word narrator when referring to the character in the piece (even if the piece is memoir). 2) We don’t give out life advice or devolve our work together into a therapy session (not that therapy’s not valuable – but a writing workshop is not the place for it) and 3) Confidentiality. We don’t talk about what is said or shared in workshop. What happens in class, stays in class.
My goal with all three of these rules is to provide a place of safety for the writers and for me, a place where boundaries are known and predictable, dependable and consistent. These rules have worked out for me, and I believe they work out for my students as well.
I hear a lot about thick skin, how writers need it because we will experience so much rejection in our lives, and it’s true that we will experience rejection, and loads of it. But there are qualities besides thick skin (and a grasp of grammar) that are needed to become a writer, and one of those qualities is empathy. A writer needs a heart that is tender enough to imagine what a particular situation might feel like for another person. This is true for both fiction and memoir. It’s this tender heart that helps us write stories in the first place.
What I really want writers to develop is self knowledge, and a deep knowledge of the work. If a writer develops that intimate relationship with a work, then she might get pissed off at some of the comments or treatment of her work in a workshop, but this anger will only be fuel for the boat she’s in. She’ll rail against the experience or comments for awhile, then process them as a whole, take what she can use and discard the rest. The thick skin older, more experienced writers talk about isn’t really a thick skin at all. It’s just an ability to process things more quickly. It’s efficiency. It’s using what we know to move forward and not get tripped up for too long. It’s the ability to filter comments and avoid empowering someone else regarding your work.
I’ve found in my own journey that there are plenty of people ready to define me, ready to dispense free advice about how I ought to go about this writing thing. At different points in my life, everything I’ve been doing has been judged as the wrong way to go about it. Beware the people with labels, pre-adhesived and ready to slap on. These people can be teachers, other writers, reviewers, editors, agents, total strangers, people who want to write and never have, someone who took a class from someone else some time ago, someone who knows a famous writer, etc. etc. Some of these folks can be out and out mean, or wolves in sheep’s clothing, or completely unaware of what they are doing. When it comes to writing there are many “experts.”
The only antidote is deep work. Know yourself and your characters and your story, and no one will be able to throw you off your game for very long. This doesn’t mean you never take a critique into consideration, and it doesn’t mean you don’t hurt when someone is especially mean spirited. It does mean that you have a clear vision of what is right and what is wrong for you, and when you do get thrown off your game, you return to a centered place. The longer you write, the more you will gain knowledge of yourself. This alone makes it worthwhile.