Carolyn’s Online Magazine
CAN I WRITE YOUR STORY WITHOUT YOUR PERMISSION?
WHOSE STORY IS IT?
DOES YOUR STORY BELONG ONLY TO YOU?
I scoot about the house clearing clutter, thinking about writing an article for Carolyn’s Online Magazine (#COMe)—something I can take to our next Foothills Writers (formerly the Beanery Writers Group) meeting for critique.
I’ve dabbled in photojournalism, journaling, magazine writing, grant writing and now—I spend most of my writing time creating a novel, She Saw Her Promised Land. Since it’s a first draft it’s not producing any critique material.
The computer contains a file of writing articles I wrote for the first Beanery Writers Group blog host site. Perhaps I could repost one—we all need to be reminded of past lessons. I pulled one titled Whose Story Is It?
I’ve met lots of interesting people in the past. I’ve investigated their stories in depth while counseling (I’m a former adoption caseworker and domestic violence counselor) or writing for publications. My writing idea cache overfloweth.
But which of these fascinating stories can I write?
My first question must be whose story am I telling?
The answer is obvious if the story was revealed to me in confidence: it isn’t mine to tell. But what about stories people share with me in non-confidential situations or for other publications?
If the story is about someone else, to publicize it I must, in most cases, have that person’s permission.
There’s at least one exception. Most publications writing about sexual violence don’t disclose the victim’s name—although, unfortunately, there’s often enough detailed information for some readers to identify them.
For other hard news—accidents, fires, etc.—it’s required that the ‘who, what, where, when and how’ are included. The information is a matter of public record. However, I’m noticing in today’s world, even in these situations, newspapers aren’t publishing the victim’s identity.
Writing feature stories differs from writing hard news. A subject can decline to be interviewed. If so, the best of stories cannot be written. In feature stories that can be written without an interview (the writer has sufficient information to do this) the permission of the subject is required.
Memoir writers grant themselves permission to write their own stories. No problem.
However, the author’s memoir, a family history seen through the writer’s eye view, necessarily involves other persons. No person is an island, and nobody’s story stands alone. What about these people? Can you write about them without their permission simply because their story intersects with yours? At what point do you need to ask their permission?
Most stories revolve around conflict. Perhaps the author’s parents physically abused her/him as a child. Obviously the parents will deny permission to use their names if asked. Does the author disclose their names? Does he disclose her/his own name, which by default identifies the parents?
The waters are equally muddy when writing a piece of fiction using characters based on people the author knows—circumstances can easily make it obvious who you are REALLY writing about.
Be aware of writing about others without their permission. At the very least you may create bad feelings. At the most, you may break relationships and/or end up with a lawsuit.