Writing the Memoir: Disclaimers

thinker2Though a disclaimer is no guarantee against a lawsuit, most authors and publishers of fiction and nonfiction use them in an attempt to cover all bases, to have some claim to a defense just in case they are sued.

Penguin Books uses its own particular disclaimer: “Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author’s alone.”

Writers of fiction have it easy. We’ve all read the disclaimer on a novel with some form of, “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.” But a disclaimer for a memoir is a different beast. Readers of memoir don’t expect what they read to represent a fictionalized anything – they expect it to represent the truth. And it should.

However, memoirists often face a dilemma when writing “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Others can be hurt, authors can be sued – but what if that particular truth is essential to the telling of one’s story? How much to reveal…the answer to that will determine if names, characteristics, etc. should be changed. Be upfront with the reader and disclose these changes, as I did in AJ Jackson’s memoir This New Mountain:

  • This is a work of creative nonfiction. The events are portrayed to the best of AJ Jackson’s memory. While all the stories in this book are true, some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.

And if an author alters the narrative to make it more readable, those kinds of changes should also be noted in a disclaimer, as in these two examples:

  • Everything here is true, but it may not be entirely factual. In some cases I have compressed events; in others I have made two people into one. I have occasionally embroidered. I learned early that the most important thing in life is a good story. ~ Ruth Reichl, Tender at the Bone
  • For all the author’s bluster elsewhere, this is not, actually, a work of pure nonfiction. Many parts have been fictionalized in varying degrees, for various purposes. ~ Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Eggers goes on to list in detail the areas that were fictionalized including dialogue, characters and their characteristics, locations and time.)

Another problem a memoirist has to deal with is memory, which tends to be imperfect and fades over time.

Most nonfiction is written from memory and we all know that human memory is deeply flawed. It’s almost impossible to recall a conversation word for word. You might forget minor details, like the color of a dress or the make and model of a car. If you aren’t sure about the details but are determined to include them, be upfront and plan on issuing a disclaimer that clarifies the creative liberties you’ve taken. ~ Melissa Donovan, “Six Guidelines for Writing Creative Nonfiction

Using Dave Eggers’ memoir again as an example, we see how he deals with such flaws in memory when he writes:

  • This is a work of fiction, only in that in many cases, the author could not remember the exact words said by certain people, and exact descriptions of certain things, so had to fill in gaps as best he could. Otherwise, all characters and incidents and dialogue are real, are not products of the author’s imagination, because at the time of this writing, the author had no imagination whatsoever for those sorts of things….

Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannaway handle the issues of memory and retelling of dialogue in their disclaimer for Unsinkable:

  • The conversations in the book all come from the author’s recollections, though they are not written to represent word-for-word transcripts. Rather, the author has retold them in a way that evokes the feeling and meaning what was said and in all instances, the essence of the dialogue is accurate.

On The Book Designer website, Joel Frielander gives examples of disclaimers (for different types of manuscripts) in this post. Here is his suggestion for memoir and autobiography:

  • I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed the names of individuals and places, I may have changed some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations and places of residence.

Best-selling author James Frey, who came under fire when his own memoir was found to be partly fictionalized, said this in a Bad IDEA interview: “Memoir is whatever you want it to be, it’s a book based on your life. Obviously I’m not a guy who believes it should be factually perfect, and frankly I don’t think any of them are.”

I can’t help but think if Frey had included an honest disclaimer for his memoir from the beginning, he wouldn’t have faced the wrath of Oprah Winfrey or lost in a lawsuit when the truth did come out. Subsequent issues of his memoir included this:

  • This book is a combination of facts about James Frey’s life and certain embellishments. Names, dates, places, events, and details have been changed, invented, and altered for literary effect. The reader should not consider this book anything other than a work of literature.

If a writer strives to present their life as truthfully as possible and discloses any changes to the truth, a reader can’t ask for more.

What do you think? Are there times when a memoirist has the right to change the truth or should a memoir be nothing but the truth?

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17 thoughts on “Writing the Memoir: Disclaimers

    • Congratulations on writing your memoir! I’m not an attorney, but the one I contacted before publishing This New Mountain said to use a form of the one included in this blog post: “This is a work of creative nonfiction. The events are portrayed to the best of my memory. While all the stories in this book are true, some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.”

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  1. Pingback: Invasion of Privacy | my book publisher

  2. If you are writing someone’s memoir you are telling their story…maybe in their own words. You are not claiming that it is 100% true. You can’t verify the facts but have to take them on trust…I’m sure celebrity memoir leave a great deal out and are sometimes a little more colourful (English sp) than reality. If someone has a good story to share of their life people want to read it. Good luck with yours and thank you for following selections of reflections.

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    • In writing memoir you do the best you can when dealing with your own memory or someone else’s. I think a memoir — being nonfiction — should be as true as you can make it. And if you’ve purposely tweaked the truth, disclosing that in a disclaimer is a good idea. Thanks for leaving a comment!

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  3. Thank you for this. I knew I had to do something to frame what I was writing, just didn’t know what. I’m trying to document oral history, tell stories from 50-60 years ago which I believe to be accurate, and leave an impression of my life. I have always thought that a memoir was what the author saw and thought through his own eyes and mind, and thus, inherently inaccurate to some degree. 10 people can hear the same conversation and walk away with 10 different interpretations. While I don’t want to dilute the impact of any of the stories, at the same time I’m not out to hurt anyone either. It’s an interesting problem that I will have to solve if I decide to publish. I love posts that make me think.

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    • Thank you for leaving a comment! The fallibility of memory is something I think we can all agree on. Our siblings will each have a slightly different take on the year the dog ate the Thanksgiving turkey, but the memories of our life are our own. They’re what is truth to us, whether they are accurate or not. And when it comes time to decide what to include in a memoir, I think it helps to examine our motives. Are we doing it out of anger or spite? Does it serve me or the story?

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  4. A memoir should be true. I think that a writer should state if/when a memory is fuzzy or unclear. The more honest the writer is the more credible the work is. Great post.

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