To Tell or Not to Tell
For a long time I grasped at the logic that if my narrative was absolutely true, fair, and accurate, I would have no reason to worry about a lawsuit from any of my characters. After all, inherent in the meaning of libel is the notion that misinformation, inaccurate, or injurious statements have been written about a person. I relaxed into the writing process, protected by a divine shield of truth. Or so I thought.
In addition, because the fire lookout stories from On Mockingbird Hill had happened 25 years ago, I hoped my former friends would be willing to laugh about their younger fallible selves? Or, feel compassion for our youthful mistakes. Sure, I had elected to make our personal lives public, but for years my life had been intertwined with theirs, and they were integral to the story. My story.
And this is where it gets tricky. Notions of what is appropriate in a public and private context shift and change over time. And, unless I’m narrating an unusual solitary experience, the events of my life are intertwined with those of others, overlapping stories in which I must by necessity, if I want to tell a true story, drag unsuspecting characters into the public eye.
Several of my friends were happy to be written about. They agreed that the time and events in question had been remarkable to our personal histories. I interviewed them extensively by phone, Skype, email, and face to face, coaxing them to remember, to dredge up exacting details. At times I felt as though I was preparing a legal case rather than a book. Tell me again what happened after you ran off the mountain? How many smokes did you usually miss each fire season, on average? What were you wearing that day I hiked up Moose Mountain Fire Lookout to see you?
Other friend-characters were less enthusiastic about the project. You should write this as fiction, they cautioned, terrified, or was it repulsed, by the suggestion I preferred to reconstruct the story as it happened using real names. The legalities and ethics of the situation became more complicated by my decision to publish extracts from personal letters I had received from friends on fire lookouts at that time. For me, as the female narrator, the perspectives expressed in the letters provided the first person points of view of three male characters, which, had I paraphrased their opinions, would have become diluted and weakened in third person format.
Because this was my first book and I had not yet joined the Writers’ Union of Canada, I found few resources to guide me through the interconnected issues of freedom of expression, fair use, copyright, and personal privacy. When it came to privacy I was cavalier - at least until the print date loomed. My publisher sighed: “Why do writers always think they can write whatever they choose? You need to consult a lawyer,” she instructed. “You must have a few friends who are lawyers and could give advice.” A writer and former lawyer I had met at a workshop was kind enough to advise me that this was such a specialized arena, only lawyers practicing on the defamation battle field could offer informed legal opinion. At this point, I realized the subjective nature of the dilemma. I could poll, consult, and conjecture endlessly and simply needed to do what I thought was most appropriate.
I brooded and finally decided to swap in pseudonyms for three male characters. This was fair because after all, the story involved assault charges, sexual deceit, and illicit drug use. I was willing to provide a degree of anonymity. Mind you, anyone who knew these folks would recognize their idiosyncrasies on the page; but anyone who knew them would also agree that I had captured their values, predilections, and actions cleanly without invoking hyperbole or a disparaging tone.
There are writers and readers who may feel nonfiction characters deserve more privacy, a disguise, a fictionalized physical description for instance; however, for me, such a strategy would have diminished the credibility of the story.
It seems to me we have entered a time when our lives are more transparent and public than ever before; at the same time, I have come to appreciate how every memoir or literary nonfiction manuscript poses a unique balance between a writer’s freedom of expression and a character’s potential desire for privacy.
Mary Theresa Kelly grew up a large Toronto-based family. As a young woman, she journeyed to Alberta and, mesmerized by the Rocky Mountains, made Western Canada home. She completed a master’s degree in communication studies at the University of Calgary and works by contract, part-time, in health and gender research. Her work has appeared in diverse publications from Event to The Journal of Integral Theory & Practice to The Dance Current. As a co-author, she has also contributed to more than 50 peer-reviewed research articles. She lives in British Columbia, maintains a meditation and yoga practice, and grows arugula, kale, and sunflowers. On Mockingbird Hill, published by Caitlin Press, is her first book.