Sunday, October 11, 2009

Think Before Your Write

Have you ever read about a book and thought to yourself, Okay, that guy did not engage his brain before he turned on his computer. Advice from Editor Helen to writers: Think before you write things you may someday regret.

Unfortunately, the author I’m talking about, more than likely, does not regret writing his memoir. And I know memoirs are supposed to be the truth of your life or a period of your life…But, please.

Frederic Mitterrand wrote his memoir, The Bad Life, and it was published four years ago. Everything was fine and good. His memoir was even praised by some literary critics. Then one year ago, he was appointed to office and became French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand. Now, some French politicians are demanding he explain some passages.

According to the press article I read, they want an explanation of passages:
where he describes paying for sexual relations with "young boys" in Thailand and Indonesia
Some of his critics are demanding he leave the ministry and accusing him of “endorsing the exploitation of young Asian sex workers.”

His publisher is backpedaling a bit, now describing his book as not a memoir but a “novel inspired by autobiography.” They’re also describing him as “courageous and talented.”

Although Mitterrand has confirmed frequenting brothels, he describes the critics as inspired by a far-right smear campaign.

Without speaking to Frederic Mitterrand’s mores, I would say to writers, think before you ink.

Having said that, I’ll ask those stopping by who write memoir or who have thought about writing one, should you censor what you think may get you arrested or what might not be acceptable to society?
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  1. I love hearing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth:) Many people are sceptical about memoirs and autobiographies as they feel the authors gloss over thing, lie, and fabricate. There is a price to honesty but I think it's the best policy. What do you think:

  2. Well, I won't go into my thoughts about HIS life!

    I've never even thought about writing a memoir. First off, my life was not that exciting. Yes, I had some horrible things happen, a crappy childhood, death of a parent, drama, angst, overcoming - but gee, who hasn't??? Besides, I've not led the most pure life, so rather not divulge all.

    I would think when writing about real life, one should tread very carefully and employ tact.

  3. I did write a memoir and never once did I think about not writing the truth of what happened, even if it didn't paint a pretty picture of my behavior. In order for the genre to be believable for what it is, writers of memoir must speak their truth and not gloss over things. If you don't want people to know the truth about your life, than why write memoir in the first place. Write fiction instead.

  4. My life is not exciting enough to write a memoir about, but if I did I would leave it to be published when I turned 95 and no longer cared if someone didn't like what was on the page. :)

  5. I've read a few fictionalized memoirs - memoirs written as fiction so that the author could avoid being sued or accused of not telling the full truth. That may be a way to go - memoir mixed with fiction. Sounds tricky though.

  6. I do write memoir, and am so enjoying the comments here. I'm all for the truth on the page in the genre, but feel there are different ways of shining a light on it. One in particular that I recently read is where the author lead the reader right up to a situation, and stopped there, before getting into the scene. But there's no doubt, still, to the reader what happens, and was a really effective technique. So it seems a lot of reader reaction depends on the slant of the story.

  7. I'm glad memoir writers are weighing in on this. I don't write memoir, but it seems to me that a reader of memoir wants to learn something, see how someone else overcame problems, how they rose to the status they are now, or how they came to influence others and make a difference in many lives (or something along those lines). That may not be why the writer wrote that memoir, though.

    Perhaps, to be true to yourself, a writer, if s/he's writing a memoir, has to tell all, even if it means imprisonment or losing friends, status, love, and money.

    I don't think any of that will happen to Mitterrand. He's too high up in the government and France is different from the U.S. It certainly made me stop and think, though.

  8. Very interesting post. I certainly like reading memoirs that are truthful. For Mitterrand? I don't know. If he didn't want us to know it (and, possibly, condemn his behavior), he shouldn't have written it down.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  9. I'm not saying this is the case with this book, but it makes me wonder what happens if someone writes something that they see nothing wrong with, then years later, society deems it wrong.

  10. My first paid writing gig was to ghost a memoir for a woman who had immigrated to Australia after WWII and wanted her family to know her story. When I diligently began researching behind the scenes - assuming research skills was why she had placed the ad at the University and asked for a history student - I realised that much of what she was telling me (from her date of birth on) was a lie. As the interviews progressed, it became clear that what she really wanted was for her estranged family to know her SIDE of the story. As I was ghosting it and so would have nothing I needed to 'stand by', it was just for private publication (an appropriate use of self-pub - if only others would realise the whole world does not need theirs) and she was in a delicate emotional state, I gave her the re-written story of her life as she wanted it.

    I have always wondered how an editor might have advised me to proceed if it had been on a publisher's books.

  11. The thing about creative nonfiction and memoir writing is that events described within them are only true within the scope of memory of the person who experienced them first hand. So there is always a bit of liability when it comes to writing that kind of truth. I tend to write a lot of creative nonfiction, the type of stuff family would disown over, but it is the relativity and gritty honesty in the writing that compels readers. Many people who enjoy reading biographical nonfiction and memoirs tend to do so because they can either relate to the experiences, or it's so shocking, it's more like fiction. I think it is essential to be honest, but in the case of damaging the reputation of yourself and others, perhaps a pseudonym for the author could provide protection, and keep him out of the heat. You have to figure the amount of embellishment that goes into that type of writing too. Yeah, that's how "I" remember it, but with a few strings braided into the mix for more color is often the order of the day. Great post, Helen. As always, you make me think!

  12. I've always believed that memoirs and autobiographies are best published postmortem, when all the events of a life are done. I'm especially annoyed with the 400 page "memoirs" of the young stars. I mean really, what does a 16-year-old write about for 400 pages? Chapter One: the Diaper Years?

    I'm exaggerating, but not by much.

  13. Conda- Chap 1- the Diaper Years- Funny!

    Very interesting story Danielle.

    I have a writing friend who keeps urging me to write a memoir thinking my childhood combined with my shifting countries and my new life here would be of interest but I doubt it will happen. There are many things I would NOT be honest about - I know it already. Not a good place to start. I think memoirs should be honest.

  14. What a good post, Helen!

    My thought is if you're courageous enough to write a memoir for the world to read then you're brave enough accept the consequences that come with that decision.

    And Conda; I have had similar thoughts myself about these young things writing memoirs. Very funny!


  15. I agree with you all about the young celebrity books (and, for the most part, even the older celebrity books) - or perhaps it's just because I can't relate to them.

    Danielle, it's too bad about the book you ghosted. Her family will most likely believe it was the truth and never really know her. But I can totally see why you wrote the way she dictated.

  16. I don't think I will ever write a memoir. But I find blogging can be like a memoir. We may have to think well before writing for things on the web can stay on the web forever.

    Steamy Darcy

  17. "think before you ink"

    That's a good one, Helen, and I couldn't agree more. That goes for blog writing too. The internet is forever, in so far as our words are concerned.

    I've seen bloggers trash agents and publishers for rejections.

    HelLO? Are you NUTS?

    The publishing field is really NOT that big and you can quickly become persona no grata.

    If you have to spleen, do it to your diary, your signicant other, your mother, but don't do it publicly.

    Same with Frederic Mitterrand. Why, if you have aspirations of office, would you deliberately choose to reveal things about your life that can come back and bite you in the Butt?

    There's a reason many actors or well known people don't have their brutally honest memoirs published until after they die. Can you imagine someone like Errol Flynn writing a memoir on his love affairs with young teen girls? and then try to continue with an acting career?

    Or Bill Clinton writing about his penchant for infidelity and love of *cigars* 4 years before running for office?

    *rolling my eyes

  18. It does boggle the mind that some people don't stop to think before they act. Controversy can make your book a best seller, but as you say, once it's in print it's there forever, and you have to live with that controversy long after the money runs out.

  19. "think before you ink" Greg would say I need to do this more often when it comes to my blog. My journal is on-line as my blog.

    As for ~ the truth or be careful.. It's a toss up. I'd like the truth. It would be refreshing. But if it's something illegal... well, as my Dad would say, "There's a fine line between bravery and stupidity." Guess one has to figure out where the line is.

  20. I'm with Aleta. There is a difference between being honest and publishing something that is illegal. And I think the honesty is supposed to make some point. Like in the book you referenced, Helen, did Mitterrand learn something worth sharing with readers regarding his use of brothels and young boys? If there is honesty and redemption, that seems to be better than just honesty to shock.

  21. I agree, you gotta wonder why that guy felt the need to share something like that. Eww.

    Maybe fictionalized memoirs really are the way to go. No burden of telling the truth and you can always leave your readers guessing...

  22. I like that, "Think before you ink." Good advice, Helen.

    My memoir might be successful if they print it in little tiny print and include it as part of the packaging of Lunesta. That way if the pills didn't work you'd have a back up plan.

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