Do I Own My Story? But What If It’s Also Your Story, and You Don’t Want Me To Tell It?

A thoughtful discussion of a crucial issue for most of us who write nonfiction about real people. Read the comments too.

Having come up through the feminist movement, written for feminist publications, and worked in a feminist bookstore, I know how important it is to tell our stories. If we don’t, our stories don’t get told. Taking their place in the public arena are stories about us told by others. At best these are incomplete; at their all too common worst, they’re self-interested distortions and outright lies.

At the same time, writing confers power, especially when it comes with access to a large audience. Some glibly say “Let the people I’m writing about tell their own stories,” ignoring that those people usually don’t have our skill, our will, or our access to print. This goes for journalists as well as memoirists, personal-essayists, and all of us whose writing involves real places and people. These are big questions, and they deserve better than glib, self-serving answers.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

zz hertzel Laurie Hertzel

By Laurie Hertzel

Like any good student, I sat in the front row, took diligent notes, and believed, for a while, everything my teachers said. As a young newspaper reporter, I had ambitions beyond daily journalism, so for years I attended as many workshops and seminars as possible, studying narrative writing, fiction, and, eventually, memoir.

“I own my story,” I obediently jotted during a memoir lecture—or words to that effect. “No one has the right to tell me what I can or can’t write.”

But when I began working on my first memoir, I realized that it’s not that simple. Yes, I own my story—that is, I have the right to tell the stories of my life.  But I don’t live in a vacuum, and in order to tell my stories I cannot help but tell the stories of others. Do I have that right? Do I have the…

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2 thoughts on “Do I Own My Story? But What If It’s Also Your Story, and You Don’t Want Me To Tell It?

  1. I read the same BREVITY article the other day (I’m down there somewhere in the comments.) and found it great food for thought. Bookmarked it for continued future contemplation. Writing nonfiction that touches on other people and has the potential to affect people’s hearts or minds is a huge responsibility. I’m always interested in articles on this topic because it’s primarily what I like to write about. And I find it telling that that there are no easy answers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • None at all — just questions to keep asking ourselves. When it comes to the actual writing, I’m pretty much in the “it’s your story, tell it the way you want it” camp. Often it’s the writing that leads us to deeper insight and understanding. But taking the story out in public — publishing it, reading from it, and so on — changes the dynamic a lot. I don’t think about that too much when I’m first-drafting, but once I’m into revise-and-rewrite mode, yeah, I do. I continually check my motives. I’m much more aware of audience, and the place and people I’m writing about are part of that audience. I think there’s always going to be tension there.

      Liked by 1 person

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